Controlling the oven at home to cook a roast from your smartphone while you’re at the office? No problem! Forgot to turn on the lights before you left the house? There’s an app for that. Seemingly, we have never been able to control more aspects of our home from more locations and with less energy.
While we are still a far cry from the domestic utopia promised in the Jetsons, the concept of a smart home is far from a new idea and even the component words are older than you might think. Smart, though originating in 1300s late Old English as smeart, meaning ‘painful or referring to a sharp pain’, is, in this application, defined as programming which allows a computer some independent action to adapt, which come from Allen B. Veaner’s Major Decision Points in Library Automation (1970) at the 75th Meeting of the Association of Research Libraries (“The type of machine one can have all to oneself will probably be a stripped down model with a limited repertoire of software ‘smarts’, and accommodating few peripheral devices.”). As for home, meaning a dwelling place, abode or house, its usage in English can be traced back to the Book of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels (early 700s), written in Northumbrian as hamas, where John 14:2 mentions: “In my Father’s house are many mansions…”.
Although we tend to associate the concept of a smart home as being an extension of the Internet of Things and a product of the last 2-3 decades of technology, the idea of labour-saving devices to make domesticated life easier and more efficient can be traced back to Victorian times.
As could be anticipated, the beginning decades from the 1890s to the 1920s and 30s mainly focused on the appliances in the house, as in the creation of them. From antiquity until the very late 1800s, clothes were washed by hand, baking and cooking were inexact arts, and rug beaters were the extent of cleaning: all inefficient and time as well as labour consuming activities. The invention of “gadgets” like the vacuum cleaner, electric range, oven thermostat, and washing machine were truly the beginning of the better, smarter home.
Moving beyond appliances, Mechanical genius Emil Mathias of Jackson, Michigan gave us the first look at the potential of automation at home with his “Push Button Manor”, where various minor activities, such as grinding coffee, drawing curtains, or turning on a light could all be accomplished on a timer or, as the name implies, with the push of a button.
In the mid-1960s, the Space Age pushed past the simple mechanical element, demonstrating- for the first time a central computer, called ECHO IV, which could alter room temperature, create shopping lists, and even turn appliances on and off.
Up until the late 1990s, most of these ideas either required engineering abilities that few possess or required an investment in technology that few could afford; however, in the 30 years since ECHO IV, technology had improved in price, capacity, and availability enough to make the concept of a smart home applicable to a larger part of the population. To be expected, as soon as the concept moved from one-off displays to everyday homes and became economically viable, this is also when we see the term become a stand-alone concept.
As for the foreseeable future of domotics, well, as Dorothy(Wizard of Oz) said, “There’s no place like home.”