The idea of an 'Internet of Things' is enjoying huge popularity in recent years, but the concept is a lot older and more intruiging than you might imagine
While the term 'Internet of Things' has enjoyed a huge spike in popularity in recent years thanks to breathtaking advances in IT companies like Microsoft, Libelium, and Cisco, the concept of the Internet of Things is a lot older than you might realise. The phrase itself - 'Internet of Things' - was coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999, but the idea is even way older than that, with Nikola Tesla painting a fascinating picture of an interconnected world with his words in an interview with Colliers Magazine in 1926.
Tesla gave perhaps the oldest Internet of Things description when he said: "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... 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."
With the advent of IPv6 on the horizon, we are going to experience a huge rise in the amount of objects being connected to the Internet. Those objects could be anything from everyday utensils, things not yet invented, or even farm animals. The biggest limit to IoT will be our very own human imagination. IoT's story is just starting to be told, but when did it start? Let's take a look back at some of the oldest Internet of Things objects.
John Romkey and Simon Hackett created the first toaster that was connected to the internet back in the late 1980s. Romkey was set a challenge at the 1989 Intertop Internet Networking Fair by the organisers that if he could have a working model of such a device ready by the following year, he would be given a star billing to showcase his device. Romkey teamed up with Hackett, photographed presenting the invention to an audience at the 1990 Fair, and they quickly got to work on the project.
At Intertop 1990, the toaster was a huge hit. The crowd loved the fact that a toaster could be controlled through the internet, but also loved the potential behind the idea - what else could be controlled over the internet? How far could this technology go?
However, in 1990, the toaster still needed a human to insert the bread slices into the machine before it got to work. Keen to automate the entire process, Romkey and Hackett built a crane system that inserted the toast for you, and had the improved Internet Toaster ready to delight the onlookers at the 1991 edition of the Fair.
Roulette Wheel Predictor Wearable
As long as there have been casinos, there have been dreamers coming up with schemes of beating Las Vegas and getting rich. The vast majority of those dreamers fall by the wayside and the dealer takes them for all they're worth. But once in a blue moon comes a true innovator, with a unique idea to beat the system. Edward Thorp, gifted mathematician and crackpot scientist, is one of these game-changers.
In fact Thorp literally did change the game; for a while in the mid 20th century Las Vegas casinos actually altered the rules of blackjack to give a heavier advantage to the dealer after he devised a card-counting system based on probability to win big in the game. But he makes this list for very different work of his - the roulette wheel predictor.
Based on timing and tonal sounds, Thorp created an incredibly intricate wearable computer in 1955 that predicted the outcome of a roulette spin. "The cigarette pack sized analog device yielded an expected gain of +44% when betting on the most favored 'octant'," Thorp writes in his paper on the device. Thorp fascinatingly describes the occasions which he brought the device into practice in Vegas casinos in the paper, and it's well worth a read. The device wasn't without its problems of practicality, but was so successful in its aim that in trial runs on regulation wheels, he made over $8,000 from bets no bigger than $25!
Internet Coke Machine
The idea behind the internet Coke machine was a simple one, born out of basic human needs and the will to make our lives easier. Students at Carnegie Mellon University had a long walk from their computer science department to the campus Coke machine and too many times for them this walk would be fruitless or frustrating, with either no Cokes available or only warm beverages, recently re-stocked, without a hope of quenching anybody's thirst.
The answer? Micro-switches. A group of students determined to change this too-often disastrous situation for themselves decided to hack into the Coke machine and install micro-switches that would be connected to a server program written to display the status of the Coke - whether there were bottles there in the machine, and whether they were cold or not. For a bottle to be deemed 'cold,' its presence had to be recorded by the machine for at least three hours.
The result meant that during those long nights studying on campus, the students were able to know at any given moment whether it was worth the trek to the Coke machine, and if so which exact bottle column of the machine's six to purchase your Coke from.
Trojan Room Coffee Pot
It's believed that the world's first webcam was set up in order to keep tabs on the coffee pot in the 'Trojan Room' of Cambridge University, England. A 128 x 128 px camera kept tabs on what was the only coffee pot in the building, displaying a tiny greyscale live image of the coffee pot to everyone's desktop connected to the local network.
Live feeds of the coffee pot meant that, similar to the Coke machine, nobody would have to make the trip to another floor on the building only to find no coffee was available for them. When the world wide web gained the ability to show images in 1993, the feed was switched to that, giving the Trojan Coffee Pot worldwide notoriety until its demise in 2001. The coffee pot became such an internet sensation that when the feed was turned off in 2001, the story made the front pages of numerous global newspapers including The Guardian.
Steve Mann's WearCam
Steve Mann is thought to be the father of Internet of Things wearable devices. The earliest example of the concept seems to come from his experiment in connectivity in 1994, when he connected a camera to his ordinary glasses, and fed the live feed of whatever he was looking at to the worldwide web.
Mann acknowledges that his idea was probably the second live camera stream appearing on the net, after his work was inspired by the aforementioned Trojan Room Coffee Pot. The idea ran for over two years until Mann shut the stream off in September 1996. However, you can still view a gallery of some of the things Mann saw when he was wearing the world's first wearable camera.