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The Definitive History Of Smart Home Devices

History is littered with incorrect predictions of what smart homes of the future would look like. Whether it was the LA Times Magazine predicting in 1988 that we’d all have robot butlers (I wish this had come true!), or Intel scientist Dean Pomerleau predicting in 2009 that we’d soon be controlling computer systems with our brains, it’s easy to lose track of the huge amount of progress that has actually been made with smart homes.

I therefore done a bunch of research, dusted off some old encyclopedias and written up this comprehensive guide which tracks the development of smart homes and home automation, from 1907 to present.

Technically the first ‘smart home’ devices included a portable vacuum cleaner in 1905 and the electric washing machine produced in 1907, whilst the first computerized development was the X10 smart home networking protocol in 1975. 2001 saw the release of the world’s first autonomous vacuum cleaner (the Electrolux Trilobite ZA1), whilst the Nest learning thermostat – released in 2011 – was one of the first internet-based smart home devices.

1905 to 1950: Automated House Tasks

When we think of home automation, we mostly think about going to bed and your lights automatically turning off and your doors and windows locking themselves (no more checking if the back door is locked, yay!). But remember that in the early 20th century, people were still washing their clothes by hand. This pain-stacking process involved washing clothes thoroughly in cold buckets of water, before putting them through a wringer. This could takes many hours each week, so inventions like the electrified washing machine were a huge leap forward in home automation. This section is dedicated to such electrified (but not computerized) devices which increased automation around the house.

  • 1905: Walter Griffiths, a British manufacturer, released the first electric powered vacuum cleaner that was also portable (with a more static unit produced in 1901). His invention – the snappily named Griffith’s Improved Vacuum Apparatus for Removing Dust from Carpets – looked very similar to vacuum cleaners that we use today, and it was a massive benefit for wealthier home owners.
Part of the advert poster for the Thor-32, an "electric washing machine with Thor All Metal Swining Wringer". The washing machine is pictured, with some cables and a motor visible at the bottom.
The Thor-32 Electric Washing Machine
  • 1907: the Thor 32, designed by Hurley Electric Laundry Equipment Company, was unveiled in 1907 – with their adverts saying it is “the simplest, handsomest and most perfect washing machine ever produced. A rival company did claim to have invented a similar machine a year before, however due to a lack of specific records the Thor-32 is credited as the first real electric home automation device.
  • 1929: the first dishwasher with an electric motor and capability to be plumbed in was launched by European company Miele. However the economic crash meant that the dishwasher was “doomed to fail”, with no-one being able to afford what was a luxury product at the time.
  • 1938: beyond washing clothes, effectively drying them was also seen as the ‘next big thing’ for making home life easier. A North Dakotan inventor named J. Ross Moore released an electrically operated clothes dryer in partnership with Hamilton Manufacturing Company, naming it the “June Day”.
  • 1950: an extraordinary article in the December 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics outlined the Push-Button Manor smart home. This six bedroom smart home from inventor Emil Mathias was packed full of buttons (switches) which controlled just about everything around the house via a massive array of switches, motors, relays and 7,000 ft (2,133 metres) of wire.

1965 to 1991: The Necessary Tech Is Invented

A very early touch device, this one developed by CERN in 1977 by Frank Beck.
A very early touch device (from CERN in 1977).
  • 1965: this was a big moment for smart tech, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time: the first touchscreen was invented. Eric A Johnson – a British inventor working at Royal Radar Establishment in the Worcestershire, England, describing it in a prominent journal as a “Touch display”. Smart homes would be very different without this invention – as would mobile phones!
  • 1966: American engineer James Sutherland – working for Westinghouse Electric – designed the ECHO IV (also called the ECHO 4 or Electronic Computing Home Operator). This massive computer weighed 800 pounds (360 kg), was 24 square foot (2.3 square metres) and it was the first real smart home device: it could control the home’s air conditioning, television channels and aerial, parental controls within the TV and perform useful functions like keep track of household finances, inventory and calendar entries. Oh yes, it could give weather updates too! This beat the Amazon Alexa to market by five decades – although we do accept that the Alexa Dot is a bit smaller and lighter than the ECHO IV!
  • 1969: the guys at DARPA unveiled ARPAnet after almost a decade of work. ARPAnet was the first network-based resource directory. That’s basically a fancy way of saying the internet – well, a precursor to the internet! Whilst Tim Bernes-Lee created the actual internet (the world wide web), the work at DARPA was instrumental in pushing computer networks forward – something which has definitely helped smart homes to develop.
  • 1975: X10, the biggest smart home innovation you’ve probably never heard of, was scoped out and announced. This is an industry standard which allows for home devices to communicate (for the purposes of home automation) over the power lines. X10 is very similar to the technology behind home plugs (also called power line adapters) which give ethernet internet capability over power. X10 is still in-use today in some older home automation devices, and it was a pretty major breakthrough – giving rise to Radio Shack’s “Plug ‘n Power” devices, Sears’ “Home Control System”, Black & Decker’s “Freewire” and GE’s “Homeminder” tech.
  • 1981: internet technology jumped forward with ‘IPv4’ being formalized, a standard way of assigning addresses for internet-accessible devices.
  • 1980s: a range of smart tech and home automation devices came out at this point, ranging from automatic garage doors (driven with remotes). The technology wasn’t quite there, of course, and you either had to rely on lots of cables or single devices which didn’t communicate with each-other. Still, it was an exciting decade which bought such technology into many people’s homes.
  • 1985: the Xanadu House project across America culminated in the ‘Home of the Future‘ which the below video shows. This smart home was filled with smart technology, including a robot butler, a ‘computer cook’ (which was more of a smart meal planner), a gardener and much more:
  • 1991: the 2G mobile network standard was launched in Finland. This was the first time that digital data services could be transmitted to and from mobiles phones. Whilst technically internet websites could have been supported at this point, 2G was originally used for text messages (due to limitations in both mobile phone and internet technology) – actual internet on mobiles came later with 3G.
  • 1993: ‘gerontechnology’ is advanced by Ad van Berlo and others in a research paper. This is the idea of having smart home technology for the elderly, with a range safety devices being produced. From the early 90s, the elderly could buy a trip/fall buttons which – when clicked – would remotely notify a central contact point (who would then send someone to the house, or notify nearby family/friends). This is one of the earliest mainstream uses of smart tech.
  • 1997: Wi-Fi is invented! Well, some forms of wireless technology existed before this point – but the “802.11” wireless standard was formally adopted, offering speeds up to 2 Mbps (at the time – we’re now up to 802.11ac and 1 Gbps speeds!). No more running cables all over the place – yay!
  • This was a significant turning point for smart homes: hardware was sufficiently developed to allow for smaller smart devices to be made, the internet was fully up and running, Wi-Fi exists and (some) mobile phones had internet access.

1998 to 2010: The Smart Home Arrives

  • 1998: a fairly prescient video (below) from Microsoft outlined Microsoft Home, a look at how a standard house could be enhanced with a range of smart home technology (with Microsoft hoping to be providing the software for this). What’s crazy about this video is that – whilst it looks very dated – the vast majority of what it predicts is possible right now, two decades after filming:
  • 1999: Disney had picked up on the smart home vibes, and made the Smart House movie. The premise is that a hard-up family win a computerized home, which seems awesome at first – before taking control in the form of an overbearing mother-character.
  • 2001: the Electrolux Trilobite ZA1 – the world’s first mainstream smart vacuum cleaner – started to be sold in stores around the world (after being demoed on TV back in May 1996 on a BBC program). It wasn’t cheap, selling at £999 ($1,300) when it eventually hit UK stores in 2003 – but Electrolux claimed that it had over 90% customer satisfaction ratings so maybe it was worth it?
  • 2001: 3G – the mobile network technology – launches. This was the first time that mobile internet was truly feasible, and it started to give rise to the first generation of mobile apps (even though app stores only fully launched 6 or 7 years later). This changed people’s view of mobile phones from simple call/SMS devices to smart phones which can do smart things. Y’know, like manage a smart home!
  • 2003: some of the first smart home books were released, such as Inside the Smart Home by Richard Harper and Build Your Own Smart Home by Anthony Velte.
  • 2005: a family of four in Barcelona moved into a smart house built by Eneo Labs, who used this to test various smart home tech. A CNN report say that the results show that smart homes are closer than we might think. Technica Pacifica agreed, publishing a full book showing how to use X10 to make smart devices.
  • 2008: the Google Play and Apple App Store launched, giving mainstream access to a controlled (and safe) way of downloading apps to your mobile phones. This was around the time that people started thinking of mobile phones are smartphones.
  • 2008: Canadian smart home company ecobee launched their first smart thermostat with the Smart EB-STAT-02 model on 10th October 2008. This was wired (wireless smart home thermostats took off from 2011 onwards), costing $385 and measuring 5.5×3.2×1″ (an inch or two wider than wireless models).
  • 2009: 4G launches, giving real-World internet speeds of up to 60 Mbps – making it 20x faster than 3G. With both Google and Apple mobile app stores fully available now, smart home providers started to visualize the future: a future whereby smart home devices are controllable via mobile apps.
  • 2009: an interesting NY Times article says that consumers are still skeptical about smart home technology, with the vast majority having no interest in home automation or giving ‘control’ over to smart tech. Despite this, the underlying conditions for smart home adoption (such as good quality internet) was spreading rapidly.
  • 2009: the 802.11n wireless internet was rolled out, giving speeds of up to 600 Mbps and utilizing both 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz bands (supporting a larger range of devices). Whilst the previous maximum wireless speed (of 54 Mbps) might have been a bottleneck for a bandwidth-heavy smart home, this new standard would give plenty of headroom.
  • 2010: Nest Labs launched by Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers (former Apple engineers) in California, getting started on their Learning Thermostats which ended up launching in 2011.
  • 2010: the Bluetooth Low Energy standard was agreed and also branded as Bluetooth Smart. The idea of this was to allow for lots of devices (such as smart home tech and smartphones) to be able to communicate around the house, but with a low energy footprint. This is the perfect idea for smart homes due to the large number of small devices that will be present, although Wi-Fi has tended to be the more popular choice for smart devices.

2011 to Present: Modern Day Smart Homes

This is when the smart home really took off, with the launch of the Nest Learning Thermostat and over a hundred smart home devices released from the major tech companies (and thousands more from lesser known tech firms) over the years. Highlights include:

  • 2011: The first generation of the Nest Learning Thermostat was released. It supported wireless communication and so it was ahead of its time relative to the ‘ecobee’ model released at the time. This thermostat really started to spread awareness about ‘smart homes’ amongst consumers.
  • 2012: Philips Hue, the smart bulb which supports millions of different colors and is controllable via a smart phone, was released. This was the first well-known smart bulb to be produced en masse, and its support for features like a ‘natural alarm’ (the bulb slowly introducing more natural light colors to naturally wake up the person) was a great benefit.
  • 2013: the August Smart Lock (gen 1) was released. This used bluetooth (not Wi-Fi) to communicate via the smartphone app which supported management of the lock including remote unlock.
  • 2014: arguably the biggest moment for the smart home so far: the Amazon Echo (gen 1) was released – albeit only for prime and invited members (general release came in 2015). This smart voice assistant which understood voice commands and could also play music was a great step forward for smart tech.
  • 2014: Nest Labs were purchased by Google on 14th January 2014 for an estimated $3.2 billion, starting a slow integration which culminated in full hardware integration between Google and Nest in 2018 (along with the number of Nest staff growing from around 150 to 1,000).
  • 2014: CES – the annual Consumer Technology Association trade show in Las Vegas – also started to prominently feature smart home tech such as the CES 2014 demo of Samsung’s SmartThings:
  • 2015: various smart tech was released, either for the first time or as subsequent revisions. This includes the third gen of the Nest thermostat, the ecoobee3, Philips Hue (gen 2), their competition (LIFX Bulbs) and the August Smart Lock second gen.
  • 2016: also another big year for smart home tech. Google released their Google Home smart speaker, and Amazon released their Echo Dot. Emerson released their Sensi Wi-Fi thermostat, LIFX (the smart bulb company) released loads of models and Yale (a British company) also released some smart locks and door handles.
  • 2018: Amazon purchased Ring – the smart doorbell company – for around $1.5 billion in February 2018. This helped to deliver closer integration between Amazon Echo and Ring, along with being a strategic purchase for Amazon who are constantly expanding their smart credentials.
  • 2018: the Amazon Echo Dot 3rd gen – with a much better speaker – was released, along with the Echo Show and Echo Plus. The Google Home Hub (an Echo Show competitior) was released, as was the Apple HomePod and Lenovo Smart Display. Many other smart tech was also released including more smart doorbells, smart plugs and indoor cameras.

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