Nearing a century of smart homes

Though the term smart home appears to have entered the English lexicon sometime in the mid-1980s, the concept is actually the better part of a century old.

At times, this idea has seemed to err toward science fiction, but for the most part each decade has shown new promise in achieving the ideal of a completely automated home.

In this post, we’re going to look at a few of the ideas and innovations that came about between the 1930s and 1970s.

The 1930s

Perhaps surprisingly one of the oldest discussions of the smart home’s future most accurately reflects the state of the industry today. Admittedly, its strength may lie its generality.

Not long after electricity itself had become ubiquitous in American homes, a 1939 Popular Mechanics magazine article titled “The Electric Home of the Future” said that there was nothing stopping us from remotely mastering our domain from any room in the house.

What’s more, they suggested that “short-wave radio may be utilized for this purpose.”

The 1950s

Nearly a decade later, Popular Mechanics lamented the lack of progress toward
the homes that we’d been assured would allow us to the freedom to be lazy.

As proof that such feats were indeed possible, the magazine profiled a quirky inventor named Emil Mathias who had attempted to automate just about every task in his home.

In Mathias’ home, the lights, radios, and even a burglar alarm were carefully timed to match the schedules of Mr. Mathias and his wife. Controls for many of these items were placed throughout the home so you could, for example, turn the radio in the living room off from the upstairs bedroom. Even Mrs. Mathias vanity was smartened up; when she pulled out the center drawer, the lights automatically brightened.

The 1960s

In the 1960s, innovation was taking off, and may have caused some to get carried away. One expert, for example, predicted that we’d soon see circular shaped refrigerators in every room, conveniently disguised as tables, of course.

Also not far away were “a single-laundry appliance that washes, dries, folds, and hampers dirty clothes” as well as “a disposer of a new design, making use of the laser beam, will give the homemaker of the future an appliance that will disintegrate anything.”


The optimism of the 1960s gave way to real concerns in the 70s that technology would be detrimental to the American way of life.

Some 700,000 postal workers, for example, would be out of a job as messaging devices were hung on the walls of every home, with baskets just below to catch incoming “mail.”

In response to a public outcry, the government shied away from the concept of “a wired nation,” in which every home was networked, as an extreme encroachment on privacy.

The 1980s

The 1980s were an important time for technology. After all, we saw the beginnings of little enterprises like Nintendo and Apple Computer, just to name a few.

All of this new media, many predicted, would lead to the emergence of a “communications center” in the home (known also as a television room). Further down the line, according to one writer, this media hub would become an “electronic cocoon” where people would spend nearly every waking hour and quite possible sleep there, rendering the bedroom obsolete.

This decade also saw the advent of integrated wiring. One newspaper heralded the smart home concept as one that “scraps the current system of separate wiring for power and communications in a home and utilizes an integrated wiring and central control system that, combined with updated appliances and electronic devices, can virtually think for itself.”
Ken Geremia, then the spokesman for the Research Foundation of the National Association of Home Builders, cautioned that while the idea sounded far-fetched, it would be arriving nonetheless.

A few years later, the New York Times told us that our homes would soon come equipped with personalities, effectively ending loneliness. “Electronics will give their homes ears, mouths, hands – in brief, the whole human caboodle,” according to a 1988 news article. One company, they said, had already developed a prototype and called him Max.

The 1990s

Inevitably, the space we have here as well as the waning attention of anyone who has read this far will prevent us from discussing all of the progress toward smarter homes made in the 1990s. But, importantly, this decade brought us standards-based home technologies like X10 as well as PCs in every home and widespread Internet use.

The PCs in 40 percent of America’s homes provided not only a convenient new control center where thermostats, lighting, and security could all be integrated. Limiting the success of this era’s smart homes was the “rudimentary software” available to support them (Perhaps another limiting factor was that these products were sold at RadioShack, a place not frequented by technology’s uninitiated).

In Japan, however, they had seemingly pushed past this obstacle. Though smaller in size, homes were equipped with intelligent lighting, toilets capable of measuring body fat, and screens in every room where occupants could monitor and manage just about anything in the house up to and including what’s in the refrigerator.

2000 – Present

As recently as 2001, the smart home conversation still contained elements of the impractical, like monitoring the shelf life of your milk but also started to hone in on the potential of technology to really improve lives.

Compact vibration sensors, it was thought, could be placed around the home to keep close watch over elderly occupants. These systems could also be extended to remind seniors when to take medication or, in the case of memory lapses, remind them of critical information.

In the past five or six years, the smart home’s potential has increased dramatically with higher bandwidths, tablet PCs, tons of smartphones, and widespread adoption of standards-based technology.

As Geoge H. Bucher thought wise in 1939, short-wave radio controls are making home control possible. Though he probably couldn’t have imagined that the experience would center around his iPad.

This entry was posted in Energy Efficient Homes, Home Automation, Smart Homes and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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