2363 Words

A Timeline for Home Automation

By Edward B. Driscoll, Jr.




The timeline of home automation and all of the subsets that it contains (powerline control of appliances and lighting, security, home theater, household computer networks, etc.) are convoluted and twisting. To properly diagram everything that’s happened in this industry would require a book-length tome, not an all-too-brief magazine article. But let’s take a look at the highlights, from decade to decade, to follow the trends and growth of home automation. There are some technologies, crucial to home automation, such as telephone, radio and home security that for purposes of brevity are not touched on in this article, as well as media room technology like video games and surround sound receivers. But television, personal computers, the Internet and powerline carrier control (such as X10) are all part of the essential building blocks of home automation. The first of these technologies to appear was television, as we shall soon see.


The history of television


While Fred Flintstone ordering Wilma to make his dinner may have been the first instance of a remote control in the home, all archeological evidence shows that there was no TV during Fred’s era. Television was essentially created in the 1920s, by a group of engineers working independently in several countries in Europe. In March 1935, a television service was started in Berlin using a system that generated a picture with 180 lines a frame, and 25 frames per second. Pictures were produced on film and then scanned using a rotating disk. As depicted accurately, if more than a tad ironically, in the film Contact, mobile television cameras were developed in 1936, in time for the Berlin Olympic Games.


In November of 1935, television broadcasting began in Paris, using a similar system as Germany’s. During the late 1930s, television standards rapidly increased in England, Europe and France. However, most television broadcasting was greatly curtailed by World War II. But the research in cathode ray tubes led to the invention of radar and its tracking screens.  


In 1939, David Sarnoff used the 1939 New York World’s Fair as a backdrop to promote this  new invention. NBC and CBS, then hugely popular radio broadcasters, began offering television service. After the War, television grew rapidly, and the new medium created its own celebrities, as Uncle Miltie, Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar (among others) became superstars.


Television signals sent by antennas have a hard time getting over mountains. So in June of 1948, the first cable TV service was launched, to bring television to rural mountains of Pennsylvania, many miles from Philadelphia-based transmitters.


In the early 1950s, several breakthroughs occurred, besides being able to see Ralph Cramden’s apartment. US color TV standards were agreed to, and the first color broadcasts occur in the United States in 1954. And in April of 1956, Ampex demonstrated the first viable video tape recorder, which recorded in black and white. Rival RCA followed suit in 1957, with equipment designed for color.


In 1965, Sony demonstrated the first consumer video tape recorder, which they followed in 1975 with the Betamax, the first consumer recorder to use videocassettes. The Rival VHS format (which would of course, overtake Beta as the dominate video format, debuted a year later. Suddenly, America was faced with endless hoards of standup comedians making jokes about the  digital clocks on their VCRs endlessly blinking 12:00, 12:00, 12:00, 12:00, 12:00.


In 1978, Philips introduced the 12” laser disc, which looked like a shiny silver LP record. Laser discs were both the predecessors to the 4.75” Compact audio disc (the CD) as well as the 4.75” Digital Versatile Disc (the DVD). In the 1980s though, it appeared the LD was DOA. After a brief format war, laser discs would languish far behind the sales of VCRs, but would reemerge in the late ‘80s, as the format of choice of film buffs. The foundation of this laser renaissance occurred in the mid 1980s, when the Voyager company began releasing a serious of letterboxed and director-approved transfers of films, with a host of bonus features, like audio commentaries, stills, out-takes, trailers, making-of featurettes, and more. Other studios picked up on this new style of presentation, which was directly aimed at film buffs. Voyager’s extra features, and letterboxed transfers directly pointed the way to today’s DVDs.


Speaking of which, the DVD debuted in 1997. After a brief format war with the fortunately DOA Divx pay-per-view DVD format, DVD sales have gone way beyond the sales of laser disc players, which never cracked a million units sold in the US. DVD player sales are over six million in the US, and climbing.


Other than stereo arriving in 1986, the main elements of television technology were little changed until the mid-1990s. In 1995, the first 16X9 widescreen TV appeared, a direct precursor to the first high definition TVs, which began arriving in showrooms in 1999.


For a detailed account of the invention of television, visit the online Inventors Museum at http://www.inventorsmuseum.com/television.htm. For a detailed timeline of television, videotape, laser disc and DVD sound, the Dolby Corporation has an article on this topic written in the Adobe Acrobat at http://www.dolby.com/ht/430.l.br.9904.surhist.pdf.


How the Web Was Won


(Note: This segment would have essentially repeated big chunks from the essay of the same name that I uploaded to EdDriscoll.com here.)


The birth of the Personal Computer


     Like the other elements of home automation, the history of personal computers is long and convoluted. Since so many personal computing innovations occurred in the 1970s, we’ll focus our attention there. If you’d like more information on this subject, and an excellent timeline of the personal computer from 1965 to 1998, check out CNET’s 30 Years of Windows, at http://www.udayton.edu/~cps/cps560/notes/history/30Years.html


The predecessors of today’s Macintosh and “Wintel” (A IBM-clone personal computer powered by an Intel chip and running a Windows95 or 98 operating system) machines were created in the early 1970s by researchers at Xerox’s now legendary PARC facility. PARC stood for Palo Alto (in California) Research Campus. The PARC team invented the first GUI (graphical user interface), teamed it with a mouse (sound familiar?) and also perfected what they called the Ethernet, a way to interconnect multiple computers into a LAN (local area network).


In 1975, an inventor named Ed Roberts created the first commercial microcomputer, the Altair 8080. The Altair was named by Robert’s five year old daughter after a planet visited by the U.S.S. Enterprise of TV’s Star Trek. The Altair shipped with a paper tape of the BASIC computer language licensed by two young, unknown college dropouts named Bill Gates and Paul Allen, who ran a company called Micro Soft. Yes, back then it was two words, not one. The Altair 8080 not only put the personal computing industry on the map, it helped launch Microsoft as well.


While the Altair 8080 sold approximately 10,000 units, its cumbersome look, clunky-sounding name, and its hobbyist nature made it a product strictly for tinkerers. One of whom was Steve Wozniak, who based the little seen Apple I on some of the concepts pioneered in the Altair.


It was with the now classic Apple II (as well as Radio Shack’s TRS-80), released in 1977, that home computing was truly launched. For the time, the Apple II was a rather elegant design, which coupled with Steve Jobs’s marketing efforts would put Apple as arguably the early leader of the personal computer industry. Woz’s open design of the Apple II computer was largely to facilitate the development of home-control devices. He was confident that one of the major applications for his new personal computer would be home automation.


Like the computer visionaries of the 1960s and the Internet, Jobs and Woz didn’t know that independently, a group of Scottish engineers we’re developing a home automation system of their own, called X10.


The History of X10


Today, most readers of PHA take X10 for granted. The fact that X10 modules can be purchased in Radio Shack, (Radio Shack to this day is still one of the biggest retailers of X10 products) has made X10 the McDonalds of home automation. But remote control of appliances and lighting through the existing powerlines of the home was a major breakthrough in home automation in the mid-1970s. (Thanks to Jeff Denenholz of X10 for the details of their history)

In 1970, a group of engineers started a company called Pico Electronics in Glenrothes, Scotland.  Pico revolutionized the calculator industry by developing the first single chip calculator. (Most calculators at the time used at least 5 chips, known as Integrated Circuits, ICs) Today, X10 claims that this Contrary to popular belief, this calculator IC was the world’s first microprocessor.  Pico went on to develop a range of calculator ICs which were manufactured by General Instruments and sold to calculator manufacturers such as Bowmar, Litton, and Casio.  When the price of calculator IC’s began to plunge, Pico decided to focus on developing an actual commercial product versus concentrating on just ICs.


In 1974, the Pico engineers jointly developed a record changer that would select tracks on a regular vinyl LP with BSR, which at the time was the world’s biggest manufacturer of record changers. The Accutrac could be operated by remote control based on a device Pico developed using ultrasonic signals.  This led directly to the idea of remotely controlling lights and appliances. 


In 1975, the X10 project was conceived.  (It was simply the tenth project that Pico had worked on. There were 8 different calculator IC projects and the Accutrac was project X-9) The concept of using existing AC wiring to transmit signals to control lights and appliances was born.


In 1978, after several years of refining the technology, X10 products began to appear in Radio Shack stores. Shortly thereafter, X10 products appeared in Sears stores. A partnership with BSR was formed, known as X10 Ltd, and the BSR System X10 was born. The system at that time consisted of a 16 channel Command Console, A lamp module, and an Appliance module.  Soon afterwards came the Wall Switch module and the first X10 Timer.


By 1984, Pico had developed a joint venture with GE for a product called the Homeminder. It was a VCR styled package a bit bigger than a cable set top box. It connected to the TV and was operated by an infrared remote. Eventually the GE division responsible for the Homeminder was closed and the units were repackaged and sold to Radio Shack.


In the early 1980s, X10 lacked an official computer interface. Dave Rye of X10 says that “In the early days there were a lot of computer enthusiasts using X10. There were third party computer interfaces available even before we introduced one. e.g. one by Steve Ciarcia of Circuit Cellar Ink magazine (marketed by Micromint).”


Shortly after the Homeminder, X10 developed their first computer interface for Mattel’s short-lived Aquarius computer. X10’s Aquarius computer interface eventually morphed first into the Radio Shack Color Computer Interface, and then into X10’s long lived CP-290 unit, which was sold until the X10 replaced it with the ActiveHome controller in the late 1990s. Over the years, the CP-290 has had a long list of both “official” and shareware software so that it could be used with Apple IIs, Macs, DOS, and Windows in all of its many versions.


It was also in 1984, according to Dave Rye, a vice president and technical manager with X10 (USA) Inc., that “BSR went belly up and so we pulled out in 1984 and formed X10 (USA) Inc. (we being Pico). Pico is now a wholly owed subsidiary of X10 Ltd.


In 1989, X10 introduced the first low-cost self-installed wireless security system.  Then came the Voice Dialer security system, the Monitored security system, as well as Personal Assistance versions. In 1995, X10 set up its own monitoring station called Orca Monitoring Services in Seattle, Washington.  Today, it monitors security systems developed and manufactured by X10 for Radio Shack, Phillips Consumer Electronics, (Magnavox) and the X10 Powerhouse brand.


Speaking of X10’s future prospects, Rye says the format “will last forever. It is the de facto standard for home automation and is used by IBM, RCA, GE, Microsoft, Radio Shack, Magnavox, Leviton, and in fact just about everyone in the HA business.” However, over the years, there have been several attempts at replacing it. Two of these are CEBus, (Consumer Electronics Bus - the) which was introduced in 1984, In 1991, the Lonworks System was introduced. Both attempted to improve the reliability of the X10 system, but neither has (yet) caught on, on the mass scale that X10 has. Helen Heneveld, a home automation industry consultant with the Training Dept. (www.trainingdept.com), which provides training products to the industry says, “In the early 1990s, the consumer mix fell into two categories, the ultra-high-end, with systems of $100,000 and up, and the mass market, with systems of $2,000 and $35,000. What actually happened was moderate acceptance of CEBUS in the high market, and virtually no acceptance by the mass market.”


In other words, while X10 isn’t perfect, it’s still the only modular system that can be bought on a low budget at Radio Shack, Home Depot, Micro Center, and other stores. And that ability to get started cheaply, for a homeowner to get their feet wet with home automation, is a very good thing.


How We Got Here


It’s interesting to note that so many of the elements of home automation, such as X10, personal computers, the Internet, video games, video discs, and the VCR were all invented, perfected, or released to the public in the 1970s. For as David Frum noted in his recent book How We Got Here, it wasn’t the 1960s, but the 1970s where so many of the changes in society occurred which have laid the foundation for how we live today. And that’s certainly true of home automation. While we’ve come to the end of our timeline, the evolution of home automation goes boldly into the future. But that’s how we got here.


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