The history of the Smart Home

The history of the Smart Home

The history of the smart home goes back a long way, to the invention of remote control.

The first example of remote control was demonstrated by Nikola Tesla in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1898. Using a small, radio-transmitting control box, he manoeuvred a model ship around a pool of water and even flashed its running lights, without any connection between the boat and controller. Few people at the time were even aware that radio waves existed, so his demonstration sparked a lot of interest in how else remote control could be used.

Tesla and his remote control boat from 1898.

Then, during the industrial revolution in the early 1900s, the first vacuum cleaners were invented, followed by clothes dryers, washing machines, refrigerators and electric dishwashers. Although they were not really “smart” devices, this new wave of home appliances made a big difference to people’s lives.

The most significant event in the history of the smart home system happened in 1966 when James Sutherland designed and built the first integrated smart home system. His Echo IV was essentially a bespoke home computer which allowed consumers to create digital shopping lists, control the temperature of the home, turn appliances on and off and to even access weather forecasts!

The features of Echo IV smart home system included:

  • Accounting
  • Household inventory
  • Calendar
  • Managing digital clocks through the house
  • Air conditioning management
  • TV management – on school nights children were required to answer questions if they wanted to watch television!
  • Meteorological program connected to a weather station that to forecast weather

Despite his incredible vision of what smart home technology could do, James’ Echo IV was ahead of its time and wasn’t a commercial success due to its price.

history of the smart home
Jim Sutherland using the ECHO IV computer with his wife, Ruth and children Sally, Jay and Ann.
(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1966)

But, in 1971 the invention of the micro-controller brought large price reductions to electronics, making the technology more affordable and electronic devices became commonplace around the home.

Then, in 1973, Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet, to connect multiple computers and, in 1974, Vic Hayes, known as the “father of WiFi,” created the communication standard IEEE 802.11 – the standard on which today’s Wi-Fi is based, both of which were key events in the history of the smart home. But WiFi, the industry standard that would enable wireless connectivity and automation in the home, wasn’t introduced until 1997.

Since then, people have invented other standards for connected devices, such as Zigbee to Z-Wave. These low-cost wireless networks are similar to WiFi and are considered more stable, use less data, and can have a more extensive range.

Z-Wave can even support a wireless mesh network to allow devices to talk to each other but, it’s a closed standard owned by Silicon Labs. By contrast, Zigbee, which works in a similar way, is open source, and not owned by anyone. Zigbee products need to be within 60 feet of each other. Z-Wave goes all the way to 500 feet!

Today, with the proliferation of more stable routers, WiFi has become the most common communications system for most smart home networks. Having access to the vast online processing power of Google and Amazon – and access to their voice recognition systems – is an obvious advantage.

The real benefits of the smart home will not be realised until all our devices are interoperable (able to communicate with each other) but, so far, closed-source protocols and competing proprietary standards have limited inter-connectivity.

However, since everyone stands to benefit from committing to a standard open protocol for smart home connectivity there is a lot of interest in establishing a common communications platform – and this is where Matter come in.

Matter is an open-source connectivity standard, created by over 400 companies, that connects Thread, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and ethernet to allow devices to communicate with each other locally, without the need for the cloud. Matter is being coordinated by the Connectivity Standards Alliance (or CSA, formerly the Zigbee Alliance), which includes Amazon, Apple, Google / Nest, Samsung, Wyze, iRobot, Signify (Philips Hue), Ecobee, and hundreds of other smart home brands. Hopefully, it will bring an end to the ‘protocol wars’ that have plagued smart home technologies and improve usability and accessibility for everyone – making all our homes smarter.