The History of Home Automation

People have fantasized about reducing the chores and laborious tasks that go hand in hand with maintaining a home. In the late 1800s and early 1900s when electricity found its way into homes, people became accustomed to the idea that technological devices could relieve them of the drudgery they had just accepted until then.

We may not think of vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and washing machines as high-tech automation devices, but when they became commonplace they had a major impact on people’s lifestyles.

Imagine that you had to spend hours every day washing clothes manually and suddenly there was a machine which could complete that task on your behalf while only requiring minutes of your time and attention.

Many visions of the future across the decades have shown us a world where human beings don’t have to spent their limited time doing repetitive manual labor. One of the most famous examples has to be the Hannah Barbera cartoon The Jetsons. In this children’s show we see robots and other smart machines taking care of every possible tasks: cooking, cleaning, answering the phone, and much more.

It’s likely that the Jetsons (among others) had a significant impact on the current generation of scientists and engineers, entering the collective consciousness and emerging now as products that are enabled by new technological progress.

The vision of technological home automation lives on in our current media as well. Films like Iron Man with Tony Stark’s AI assistant Jarvis continue to fire the imagination of the public and help to drive market demand for better automation systems and products.

In the Beginning

The early days of labor-saving technology came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These machines were powered by gas or electricity. In the 1900s built-in electricity became viable and widespread, opening the market for large and small appliances.

These devices sped up labor and removed or reduced the physical requirements to do the work, but any automation that there was in their operation came from simple electromechanical methods. A human being’s intelligence was still needed to operate or oversee the technology.

This was all before there was even a notion of digital technology, or at least digital technology that would be small and cheap enough to ever fit in a home. That did not stop people from working on early robots such as Alpha, a crude robotic device that was shown off at the 1933 World’s Fair.

Alpha could respond to a very limited set of commands, which included firing a pistol – which it promptly used to shoot its creator, but that’s a story for another day.

The Thrilling 50s

The first model that sort of resembled the modern conception of an automated home was probably the “Push Button Manor”. This was an actual place created by a Michigan resident named Emil Mathias. Mathias actually lived in the Push Button Manor. The manor was set up in such a way that most daily tasks could be completed with the push of a single button. It was clunky, impossibly expensive, and not for sale.

In 1957 Monsanto showed off their house of the future at Disneyland. According to their vision everything would be made of plastic. Everything.

It had an ultrasonic dishwasher and a sink that would adjust to your height. All in all in it was a pretty successful exhibit.

The Swinging 60s

In the late 60s Ford came up with a real corker of a concept video about the year 1999. They got a bunch of things wrong, that’s for sure, but a lot is scarily accurate, especially how there is a central controlling computer that does the same job a modern Z-wave or HomeKit hub would, except it takes up a whole room of its own.

They also accurately predicted e-learning and online shopping. Not bad.

The Awesome Eighties

In the 80s we saw the idea of the Xanadu house, although the concept was actually developed in the 70s. It was going to be a house made of rigid foam in a dome shape, filled with a bunch of robotic assistants that washed the dishes and did other chores. Not that accurate, but we do have robotic lawnmowers and Roombas now.

The Gnarly Nineties

In the 90s we saw the rise of the internet and the maturation of internet technology. The adoption of the internet has been faster than any other new technology in history and today fully half of the world population is connected to the internet.

By the end of the 90s computer technology was set to become truly mobile and the hardware needed to connect to a network was getting cheap and compact.

The best example of an automated home in the nineties was probably the Integer Millennium House. It was opened to the public in 1998 and in it you could see all the latest home automation technology driven by digital devices.

The home had integrated heating, garden control, security, lights, and doors. At this point only the very richest of the rich could actually afford to have any of this in their homes.

The Naughties

During the early 2000s we began to see more and more “smart” devices. Early concept devices such as the internet fridge became practical. Mainstream consumer devices such as televisions also gained smart capabilities and could now connect to the internet to perform all sorts of services.

The Present

Today home automation is still expensive, but definitely affordable to middle-class homes. The mass adoption of powerful mobile computing devices, and advances in power-efficient and powerful computer chips, means that everything is becoming smart – from toothbrushes to cars.

Today we are seeing the rise of the “Internet of Things”. A global network of machines that talk to each other. Thanks to cloud computing and the personal data clouds we all have, our smart machines can now learn our behavior and anticipate our needs even before we realize them.

Biometric technologies are also now cheap and easy to integrate in everything. Even phones and relatively cheap door locks can have fingerprint scanners.

The Future

The next big development in automation is likely to revolve around the artificial intelligence revolution. Systems like Siri, Alexa, and the Google Assistant are becoming much smarter with every passing day. By the 2020s it’s likely that these AI programs will be smart enough to converse like a regular human being and understand complex commands. Basically, the future looks like Jarvis from Iron Man, which is awesome.