The Secret of IoT History

Forecasts are showing that spending on the Internet of Things (IoT) will surpass several trillion dollars over the next five years and Gartner projects that spending on connected devices will reach 20.4 billion by 2020. and both B2C and B2B companies are scrambling to understand what this tidal wave of spending and technology will mean to their products, customers, employees, production practices and how will it change their industries. But is the IoT really that new? Let’s take a look back to understand the genesis of this wave.

Electromagnetic Needle Telegraph (1832)

It seems we can officially stop referring to IoT as new or revolutionary, but the history of the Internet of Things started long before the internet age.

Baron Paul L. Schilling von Canstatt joined the Russian General-Staff as a 2nd Lieutenant at the age of sixteen. A genius by any right, he memorized large texts in hours and spoke a slew of languages (Tibetanean, Indian, Russian, French, Italian, English, Greek, Latin & Mongolian…to name a few).

But his contribution to IoT came when he invented the Electromagnetic Needle Telegraph (although rights to the invention were later stolen). The transmitting device had sixteen black and white keys that were used to create the messages. Messages were received by six galvanometers with magnetic needles suspended from silk threads. The first message was sent between rooms in Schilling’s apartment. A year later, the same technology was used by Carl Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Weber to send a message 1200 meters.

Visionaries Nikola Tesla (1926) and Jay B. Nash (1932) Predict a Wireless World

Nikola Tesla foresaw the coming of an IoT world and described it to Collier’s Magazine in 1926:

“Wireless will achieve closer contact through the transmission of intelligence, transport of our bodies and materials and conveyance of energy… When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole.  We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance.  Not only this but through television and telephony, we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone.  A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”

Jay B. Nash described a connected home during a time when many Americans were living in Hooverville’s:

“Within our grasp is the leisure of the Greek citizen, made possible by our mechanical slaves, which far outnumber his twelve to fifteen per free man… As we step into a room, at the touch of a button a dozen light our way. Another slave sits twenty-four hours a day at our thermostat, regulating the heat of our home. Another sits night and day at our automatic refrigerator. They start our car; run our motors; shine our shoes, and cut our hair. They practically eliminate time and space by their very fleetness.”

The First Wearable (1955)

Gambling gave birth to one of the most important steps in the history of the internet of things. The first wearable computer was about the size of a cigarette pack and although it was being used in 1955, its existence was not known until 1966. Why? Edward Thorpe designed the device to predict the action of a roulette wheel. Thorpe reached out to Claude Shannon to help perfect the device and in 1966 the two MIT professors took the device to Las Vegas for a test run.

The wearable computer worked remarkably well and although there were some mechanical difficulties (the wire connected to a speaker worn in the ear was very thin and broke often) the two deemed the project a success.

The First Message is Sent Over ARPANET (1969)

ARPANET was a precursor to the Internet. Its development was sponsored and supervised by the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and completed on the campus of University of California. On October 29, 1969, Professor Leonard Kleinrock received a message sent by his student programmer, Charlie Kline. Only two of the letters made it through before the computer crashed (“lo” as in “login”); however, an hour later the two succeeded in transmitting the entire message. This was the humble beginning of what we now call the internet.

The First Digital Monitoring Device (the early 1980s)

Students and teachers at Carnegie-Mellon’s Computer Science department used micro-switches installed inside Coke machines to monitor the temperature of the interior of the machine and the number of bottles that were left inside. More than 30 years later, we are still waiting for the similar technology to infiltrate our homes, but the first experiments are already stored in the internet of things history books.

The First FitBit-Style Wearable (1994)

While examples of life-tracking devices pepper the shelves of many retailers, in 1994 anyone interested in a daily, personal log of their physical activity or bodily responses (movement, blood pressure, heart rate) kept a paper journal. In 1994, Stephen Mann mounted a wireless webcam to his head and started the first digital life-logging.

M2M is named D2D and the Term “Internet of Things” is Coined (1999)

At the World Economic Forum, Bill Joy, the founder of Sun Microsystems described device-to-device communications. That same year, Kevin Ashton of Procter & Gamble used the term “Internet of Things” to describe the link between RFID (Radio-frequency identification) technology in P&G’s supply chain and the Internet.

In a seminal 2009 article in the RFID Journal, “That ‘Internet of Things’ Thing”, Ashton made the following assessment:

Today computers—and, therefore, the Internet—are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information. Nearly all of the roughly 50 petabytes (a petabyte is 1,024 terabytes) of data available on the Internet were first captured and created by human beings—by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture, or scanning a barcode. Conventional diagrams of the Internet … leave out the most numerous and important routers of all – people. The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy—all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world. And that’s a big deal. We’re physical, and so is our environment … You can’t eat bits, burn them to stay warm or put them in your gas tank. Ideas and information are important, but things matter much more. Yet today’s information technology is so dependent on data originated by people that our computers know more about ideas than things. If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best. The Internet of Things has the potential to change the world, just as the Internet did. Maybe even more so.

—Kevin Ashton, ‘That ‘Internet of Things’ Thing’, RFID Journal, July 22, 2009

The United Nations Recognizes the IoT (2005)

The UN’s International Telecommunication Union published a report entitled “The Internet of Things” The report predicted a world in which “humans, electronic devices, inanimate objects and databases are linked by a radically transformed Internet.” Written by a team of analysts from the Strategy and Policy Unit (SPU) of the ITU, the report takes a look at the next step in “always-on” communications, in which new technologies promise a world of networked and interconnected devices that provide relevant content and information whatever the location of the user. The report stated, that everything from tires to toothbrushes will be in communications range, heralding the dawn of a new era, one in which today’s Internet (of data and people) gives way to tomorrow’s Internet of Things.

A New Era of Consumer Technology (CES 2016)

The Consumer Electronics Show is well-known for showcasing the latest mobile and hardware and technology gadgets. This year’s show, held in January proclaimed a “new era of consumer technology” in reference to the onslaught of IoT devices that were found at the show. Ceiling fans controlled via an app on your mobile phone, an “adrenaline dress” and smart locks that turn mobile devices into house keys were just some of the many IoT-focused products to debut.

After taking a look at the history of the Internet of Things, it is tough to think of it as “new;” even the term itself is more than seventeen years old. However, what is definitely new is the breadth of interest and the hardware advances that have made the IoT a pervasive technology.

The next time someone rolls their eyes when you start talking about connected things or passes off IoT networks as a “trend” try reminding them that people thought that internet connection was a library thing and this fire has been already burning for a long time.

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About the author


A copywriter at SaM Solutions, Eugene is fond of writing about innovative technologies and solutions that improve living standards and add value to business operations.


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