Tech history 101

Know your history — There’s no slowing down IoT

Sarah Schlothauer
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© Shutterstock / Inspiring (modified)

Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Our tech history series continues with the Internet of Things. How did we go from a pre-Internet world into one where there are more objects connected to the Internet than people? And how is the love of caffeine connected to this?

How many IoT devices do you own? Do you turn off your home’s lights with your phone? Does a smart door lock keep your belonging secure? Is an Amazon Echo your personal DJ? Maybe even Fido’s dog food comes from the power of the Net.

There’s no slowing down the Internet of Things, that much is becoming clear. As a matter of fact, predictions state that by 2022 there will be 18 billion IoT-related connected devices.

Is the Internet of Things older than you? Well, technically it is even older than the Internet. The ARPANET of Things doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, however. (ARPANEToT?)

SEE ALSO: AI and machine learning in software development: Benefits for developers

IoB…Internet of breakfast?

Back in 1982, Carnegie Mellon students hankering for their daily dose of caffeine and sugar faced a problem. The unlucky would buy a warm bottle of Coca-Cola, and the really unlucky would find the machine empty. Well, you know what they say: Necessity is the mother of invention. (Or in this case, the thirst of developers.) Some ingenious history-makers installed micro-switches in the machine to sense how many bottles there were and how long they’ve been chilling. The rest is history.

Now we’ve had a drink, what about a snack? John Romkey and his friend Simon Hackett developed a toaster that connected to the internet (specifically a classic Sunbeam Deluxe Automatic Radiant Control Toaster) This early IoT device debuted at the 1990 Interop. The beloved toaster showed up again at the 1991 Interop with an IoT-controlled robotic arm that dropped in a slice of bread.

Our toast is golden brown, but what about some coffee to start the day with? When you think retro webcams, you might think of your first grainy webcam clipped onto your monitor. But did you know that it was actually Quentin Stafford-Fraser who pioneered the idea, all because he wanted to check on the coffeepot. (Is there a recurring theme of caffeine-deprived academics? It’s a real struggle.)

Known as the “Trojan Room Coffee Pot“, this IoT precursor was also pre-Internet. A video frame-grabber took pictures of a pot of coffee, ensuring that students knew when it was empty, when it brewing, and when it was fresh. Sadly, the historic coffee pot is no longer online. It was taken off the net on August 22, 2001. The final image of the server switching off can be seen here. I bet you did not expect to be emotional about a coffeepot today.

Moving to a new Millennium

Moving forward a few years, the term Internet of Things was coined in 1999. While giving a presentation at Procter & Gamble, Kevin Ashton used the phrase to describe a network connecting physical objects to the Internet. Of course, back then Ashton was not considering the massive world of IoT that we have today. It was limited to new RFID technologies used in Procter & Gamble’s supply chain management. (Radio-frequeny identifaction of things?)

With the new millennium, IoT exploded from bizarre single-function inventions to further reaching uses. The Arduino project began in 2003 at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy. As we know today, the open-source electronics platform has been used in countless IoT creations, from hobbyists and professionals alike. The stage was already being set for the Internet of Things to blossom.

In 2005, recognition grew when the International Telecommunication Union published their first report on the Internet of Things. The report discussed the future of smart homes, the potential of “smart things” reaching the automotive industry, and even some of the challenges and concerns that still face the IoT sphere today. (Concerns regarding privacy have been key since day one.)

Then, between 2008 and 2009 something big happened. According to a report by Dave Evans, Cisco Systems estimated that for the first time in history there were more things connected to the Internet than people. The Internet of Things truly began here. No longer a futuristic term, the IoT entered our reality and continues to shape our world.

XKCD: Listening


 IoT in 2020?

How accurate was the ITU’s vision of an IoT future? A section titled “2020: A Day in the Life” tells us about a typical 23-year old Spanish student. She drives a smart car (not a Smart Car), looks at a jacket with an embedded media player, breezes through the French-Spanish border with her automatic RFID passport, and gets a video call from her boyfriend on her sunglasses.

SEE ALSO: The Internet of Things: A technology in desperate need of a protocol

So, maybe we aren’t quite at the future of smart coffee machines that already know how we like our brew before we order it. But the passage does bring up some striking similarities to our current lifestyle.

Dave Evans wrote in his Cisco report that IoT is critical for human progression.

By combining the ability of the next evolution of the Internet (IoT) to sense, collect, transmit, analyze, and distribute data on a massive scale with the way people process information, humanity will have the knowledge and wisdom it needs not only to survive, but to thrive in the coming months, years, decades, and centuries.

Dave Evans

What does the future hold for the Internet of Things?

Miss a week of class? We’ve got your make-up work right here. Check out other chapters in our Know Your History series!

Sarah Schlothauer

Sarah Schlothauer

All Posts by Sarah Schlothauer

Sarah Schlothauer is the editor for She received her Bachelor's degree from Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey. She currently lives in Frankfurt, Germany with her husband and cat where she enjoys reading, writing, and medieval reenactment. She is also the editor for Conditio Humana, an online magazine about ethics, AI, and technology.

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