An animatronic is an externally controlled puppet or figure. The external controls can be either cable, like a bicycle cable, or radio signal, like a remote-controlled airplane. The puppeteer or puppeteers manipulate the figure at a distance. This manipulation may be done in real time or recorded and played back on a computer.
Walt Disney created animatronics. He first made, with Imagineers, a tap dancing Buddy Ebsen robot. The Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles displayed this machine at a Disney Exhibit a few years back. Disney developed animatronics for the 1964 World's Fair in New York. He created the Dinosaur diorama, Mr. Lincoln and GE World of Tomorrow. The last one was a complete show with a revolving theater, lots of sets and a huge cast of animatronic characters.
Radio control puppets, also considered animatronic, started in the late '70s. Rick Baker first applied it in makeup effects. Rick is now up to his sixth Academy Award. Carlo Rambaldi first incorporated radio control into a puppet. He's from Italy. He made the giant buffalo for White Buffalo and then the small alien in Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Spielberg had great success with Rambaldi's E.T.
England's Gerry Anderson goes before all this, in the '60s, with solonoid triggers on the mouths of rod puppets on Supercar. And of course, Jim Henson has to be acknowledged for bringing it all together and polishing it up with his feature work. Another great guy.