WALTER ISAACSON: You may not be familiar with the name Cornelis Drebbel . After all, he died nearly 400 years ago. And you’re probably not familiar with his many achievements, which include inventing the first navigable submarine– essentially a rowboat with oars and a leather-covered sunroof that sealed the water out. It could hold 16 people.
And in 1625, onlookers lining the banks of the Thames River in London could watch Drebbel’s invention as it submerged–
–to a depth of about 15 feet, using snorkel-like tubes for air, and then, miraculously–
–resurfaced a few hours later, with everybody on board still alive.
But as impressive as that was, it’s another one of Drebbel’s inventions that really earns him the title of trailblazer. You see, Cornelis Drebbel is widely considered to be the inventor of the thermostat. It was an ingenious mechanical device used to control the amount of heat coming out of a furnace– in this case, a furnace built to heat a chicken coop.
Drebbel’s thermostat was an L-shaped glass tube filled with alcohol, topped off with mercury. He inserted a metal rod that floated inside the quicksilver. When the heated alcohol expanded, it pushed up the mercury, causing the rod and the tube to rise. The rising rod then pressed on a lever, which adjusted the size of the vent at the top of the furnace. The heat coming out of the furnace was tempered by the opening and closing of the vent.
Today, this is known as a feedback control device. A sensor detects changes in the output of a system and then modifies the input to bring the system back to its original state. Think about how the float valve works in your toilet, and you’ll get the general idea.
And here’s why this matters, and why Cornelis Drebbel is truly a trailblazer. What he created was perhaps the earliest example of a mechanical device that could function on its own without human intervention. It turned control over the temperature in that chicken coop over to a machine. If we were to apply 21st century vocabulary to a 17th century invention, it could be argued that what Cornelis Drebbel created was, in fact, the world’s first smart machine.
Today, it’s impossible to imagine our homes without thermostats to keep us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And those thermostats are now smarter than ever. They’re at the leading edge of what has become known as the smart home.
No longer do we set a temperature, then sit back while our furnaces and air conditioners do their thing. Now thermostats vacuum up all kinds of data about us– what time we come home from work, what rooms of the house we use, and when we use them, how cool or hot we want these rooms to be. And they can share that information with our lights, our window blinds, our TVs, anything we have in our homes that is connected to the internet. And all of that began 400 years ago in Cornelis Drebbel’s chicken coop.
I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to “Trailblazers,” an original podcast from Dell Technologies.
COMPUTERIZED VOICE: Welcome home, Walter.
MAN: The most modern, the most automatic–
MAN: Hundreds of these little robots are doing more things for us than we realize.
MAN: Creating new and more comfortable homes.
MAN: Seems like a miracle. And it is.
MAN: Robots have learned to turn on the lights.
MAN: Your domestic problems are completely solved.
WALTER ISAACSON: People have been captivated by the idea of a smart home long before the internet came along to turn the idea into a reality, and long before the phrase entered our daily vocabulary. For most of the 20th century, we thought of a smart home as a highly automated house, one where technology could mitigate the drudgery of everyday domestic life.
This was the sort of home envisioned by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury and his short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains.” It was published in 1950 as part of his classic collection, “The Martian Chronicles.” Set in the year 1985, Bradbury introduced readers to a computer-controlled house that could cook, clean, and satisfy virtually every need that an American family of the time could possibly have.
But even while Bradbury was envisioning the future in fiction, an eccentric mechanical whiz in Jackson, Michigan, was creating a real-world version of that home.
It was probably the first wall-to-wall automated house that was actually designed to be lived in. His name was Emil Mathias. As a young boy, he tinkered with ideas to make home life easier and more interesting. One of his projects was a wind-powered coffee grinder. That coffee grinder and many other innovations eventually came together in a home that he called Push Button Manor, that was featured in a 1950 edition of “Popular Mechanics” magazine.
It was a house that combined some wildly impractical ideas with some ideas that today are considered to be commonplace. There was a button–
–to open and close the windows and drapes–
–clocks that could turn radios on and off–
–at specific times, an electrical system that could check whether doors were locked–
–and a security system that included a microphone–
[MUFFLED SPEECH SOUND]
–that could pick up sounds in the garage and transmit them into the bedroom through a series of pipes. He even constructed–
–one of the first home elevators. With Push Button Manor, Emil Mathias created a vision for how automation could lead us to interact differently with our environment, the rooms and furniture and appliances in our homes, and how by changing that, he could fundamentally change our everyday lives.
There were several other experimental homes of the future throughout the 1950s. Many of them were built by big companies to show off technology they happened to be developing. In 1957, Monsanto built an all-plastic house of the future at Disneyland. Among the many innovations, there was a kitchen sink that could be raised and lowered to conform to the height of the person using it. Nearly half a million people visited the house of the future in the first six weeks after it opened.
But the next big innovation in the home would not come from developing more automated labor-saving devices. It would come from an idea even more radical– bringing the computer into the home. And the trailblazer in this case was not a big corporation like Monsanto, but a tinkerer who, like Emil Mathias and even Cornelis Drebbel, had an idea and wanted to see how far he could take it.
JIM SUTHERLAND: My name is James F. Sutherland, commonly called Jim Sutherland for 84 years. And I’ve enjoyed being an innovator in a lot of projects.
WALTER ISAACSON: Jim Sutherland grew up on a farm in Missouri. At the age of 15, he took it upon himself to try to convince farmers in the area about the wonders of electricity. So he built a model farm five feet square, with houses, barns, and chicken coops, and took it around to local farmers to demonstrate how electricity would make their lives easier. He studied electrical engineering in university, joined the Army, where he worked as a meteorologist during World War II, and eventually got a job with Westinghouse in Pittsburgh. The year was 1965.
JIM SUTHERLAND: I’d been on a group that designed the first Westinghouse industrial control computer for controlling a power generator, steam turbine. And it never worked properly. So it was returned to our research labs and all the parts were just laying out on the floor, including the $40,000 core memory system. That was the most expensive part of the computers in those days. And if you didn’t have a core memory or a memory system, you’re in trouble.
So they were throwing these parts away. And I said, I’d like to take these on loan to my home and see if I could build a computer from them. And sure enough, I got them on a property pass.
And about six months later, I designed the computer. And another six months, it was built. Then I started programming it. And that took years and years and years.
WALTER ISAACSON: Jim Sutherland knew all about what computers could do at his workplace. But he had no real idea what it could do in his house. At the time, nobody had really thought much about bringing a computer into the home. Computers were too big and too costly. Jim turned to his wife Ruth for inspiration.
JIM SUTHERLAND: My wife was a home economist. She had some ideas of what a computer could do to make her job easier. And we weren’t very good at predicting what the computers would do in the home. But we tried.
And we came up with about 11 different applications that the computer performed at our home. And we had fun. It was another member of our family. And we had three children. And the computer was just an extra member of the family.
WALTER ISAACSON: Jim called his new family member the Echo IV. It was about six feet wide and six feet tall and about 18 inches deep. It took up an entire wall of the Sutherland’s basement family room. Jim and Ruth set out to figure out what to do with it. The first place they looked was their thermostat.
JIM SUTHERLAND: Since the computer knew what time it was, what day of the month, and what year it was, we knew that it could schedule the selection of a daytime or a nighttime thermostat to control the temperature in the home. And so we saved some money on the furnace bills by setting the temperature back at night.
WALTER ISAACSON: The Echo IV could turn itself on and off to save power. It had a primitive word processor. It could act like a TV remote at a time when no one had remotes in their homes. It could play a game or two. And it could even provide some home entertainment.
JIM SUTHERLAND: The computer could generate musical notes. I had a program that controlled the size of a loop that every time it would go around the loop, it would send a pulse out to a speaker. And if you controlled the length of that loop, you could make any frequency tone.
And so we wrote programs that created Christmas carols that played “Silent Night” on the odd hours and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” on the even hours when the computer turned itself on, all night long, down in the basement.
WALTER ISAACSON: One of the most remarkable things about Jim Sutherland’s accomplishment was that he did it all on his own. His employer, Westinghouse, was happy to provide him with the parts he needed. After all, they had no use for them.
But neither his bosses nor his coworkers had any interest in what he was trying to do with all those parts. Unlike Jim, Westinghouse couldn’t see a future where just about everything we do around the house could be connected to a computer. Entirely on his own steam, Jim Sutherland was able to accomplish something truly amazing, something that had the potential to change the way we lived our lives.
JIM SUTHERLAND: I think a trailblazer or a pioneer is someone who goes out and does something that doesn’t have a clear solution to it, and does the best they can to survive in the environment that they’re in. And I guess I did my best to survive in a very hostile environment of trying to get things to work in the home. It’s a lot easier nowadays, when you can buy carrier controlled devices and put things together with off-the-shelf parts. But I didn’t have off-the-shelf parts in those days.
WALTER ISAACSON: The Echo IV computer stayed in Jim’s house in Pittsburgh until 1984, though it had stopped being functional long before that. Now it lives at a new home, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
Jim Sutherland wasn’t the only one taking computers out of the office and bringing them into the home in the 1960s. In 1969, the department store Neiman Marcus offered a so-called kitchen computer, manufactured by Honeywell, in their Christmas catalog. According to the ads, it would help the lady of the house figure out how to cook the perfect meal.
But it weighed 100 pounds and cost over $10,000. Although, to be fair, that did include a two-week course on how to program it. Not surprisingly, none of those kitchen computers were actually sold.
But perhaps the most important step in the evolution of the smart home in the 1960s was not any of the early attempts at home computing, but a television show.
“The Jetsons,” which debuted in 1962, was produced by Hanna-Barbera, the same company that brought America “The Flintstones.” And while “The Flintstones” was set in a highly imaginary prehistoric past, the Jetsons provided a peek into the technological wonders of 2062.
The Jetson family– George, his boy, Elroy, daughter, Judy, and wife, Jane– lived in a home with a robotic maid named Rosie, screens in every room to allow for nonstop video teleconferencing, and a computer in the kitchen that cooked all their meals. Looking back on “The Jetsons” over half a century later, a great deal of the technology featured in their home of the future is already here. Some of it, like the computer chef, is still a work in progress and may never get here.
The program only lasted one season. But it serves as a useful guide to mid-20th century futurism. A generation of kids grew up thinking this was what the future would look like. Many of those kids went on to create that future in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
They were driven by the idea that much of what happens in the home is stuff we don’t really want to be doing. That’s especially true for what has traditionally been considered to be women’s work– cooking, cleaning, and just about everything else that happens in the kitchen. All of that could and should be replaced by machines that would put an end to the drudgery of domestic life. Technology would allow us to be as efficient at home as we are in the workplace. That was the idea behind the early efforts at home automation and smart homes, a term first used in 1984 by the American Association of Home Builders.
But some believe that there was a fundamental flaw that lay behind many of the early attempts to automate the home and make it more efficient– a mistake that stemmed from the failure of technologists to understand what home life is really about. Richard Harper is a sociologist at the University of Lancaster in England. And he’s the editor of the book “The Connected Home– The Future of Domestic Life.”
RICHARD HARPER: It certainly is true that technologies in the home have flourished when they’ve released people from certain sorts of labors. But what that’s meant though is not that people do less things in the home. And I think the import motif here is summarized in the phrase, love’s work.
You make food for your children not because you have to, but because giving them food lets you show how you love them. If you let some machine do that for you, love’s work’s lost. And it turns out in home life, doing work is the ultimate measure of how much you love somebody. So labor in home is therefore not the same as labor in the workplace.
In the workplace, if you can automate labor, if you can get a machine to do it, all the better, especially if it can be done more cheaply. Because nobody wants to labor in work. One of the reasons why you’re paid to go to work is you’re forced to do the work that you wouldn’t naturally do.
But at home, you want to cook for your partner. You want them to feel as if they can come home and be idled. Because the want one they love loves them so much that they will look after them. So if you’re designing technologies for the home taking away all the labor of home, you have to be careful that if you take all the labor away, you might also take the tools of lovemaking.
WALTER ISAACSON: Today, the people working on smart home technology are less concerned about making our homes more efficient and more focused on making them more connected. But it required several key innovations to make that happen. The first was broadband. By the turn of the century, it was becoming a staple of the American home. And that allowed all kinds of appliances to become connected to the internet.
In 1999, Electrolux unveiled its Screenfridge. It looked like a regular refrigerator, but had a computer and a touchscreen on the door. You could send emails, order food, plan meals, store recipes– pretty much everything that Honeywell kitchen computer promised to do back in 1969. Except this time, you could really do it.
But the Screenfridge, and a host of other similar internet-enabled appliances marketed back then, struggled to gain consumer acceptance. Refrigerators are expensive and usually last about 10 years or so. If your existing fridge is working fine and you already have a home computer, why pay for a new fridge with technological bells and whistles you don’t really need? Smart appliances did not make a smart home. There had to be a value proposition so compelling that consumers would be prepared to ditch their existing products and pay a premium for something new.
Enter the smartphone and the cloud. Now, instead of a series of standalone internet-enabled devices, you could connect virtually everything in your home and control it from the palm of your hand. The smart home had finally arrived. Blake Kozak is an analyst at the consulting firm IHS Markit.
BLAKE KOZAK: You know, smart home is a kind of a dirty word in the market. It’s become widely used and kind of misused in many cases. So smart home for us here at IHS Markit. We define it as having a home that has a number of devices that can interact. So it’s more than just a security device. It’s more than just a thermostat. It’s devices that can interact between themselves and create scenes. So if a door opens, perhaps the lighting turns on, things along those lines. So it’s really a connected home with connected devices, rather than independent points.
WALTER ISAACSON: The smart home no longer consisted of a handful of smart devices working independently. The smart home was now the connected home. And to illustrate just how far we’ve come, let’s go back to the very beginning, to the humble thermostat, invented by Cornelis Drebbel 400 years ago. If that was smart technology back then, it’s positively brilliant today.
Drebbel’s great achievement was allowing the thermostat to regulate temperature by itself. But today’s smart thermostats also know when your house will be occupied and when it’ll be empty. This allows it to pre-heat or pre-cool the house, so that it’s at a comfortable temperature when you get home.
BLAKE KOZAK: So normal thermostats are generally in one location in a home. So that temperature on the main floor is often very different than either the basement or the second level or maybe the third level, depending on what kind of home you have. So these thermostats essentially have additional sensors that can be placed throughout the home that create an average. So instead of having to set your main floor thermostat to 70 and just hope that the upstairs or downstairs you know remains comfortable, you can actually create kind of an average so that there’s more kind of comfort and more energy efficiency throughout the home.
WALTER ISAACSON: And of course, those settings can all be adjusted from your phone, from anywhere in the world. A smart thermostat is gathering data about you and your home and using predictive artificial intelligence so that it can adjust settings without being told to do so, whenever it detects changes in your schedules and lifestyle. The promise of being more comfortable in your home, while at the same time reducing your energy bills by about 15% or more, has made smart thermostats one of the breakout products of the new wave of smarthome technology.
It’s estimated that more than 22 million North American homes will have smart thermostats by 2020. Nest, acquired by Google in 2014 for $3.2 billion, has become an industry leader, despite being pricier than most of its competitors. Colin Chong is head of product at AppDevices, a company that works with developers of smart home applications. And he feels that the key to any smart home success is thinking first about the user.
COLIN CHONG: We really want smart homes because they’re going to make our lives simpler. And the problem with so many, quote unquote, “smart products” is that they take a ton of time to set up, they’re adding in smarts for the sake of smarts, but not really focusing in on that user experience. So those are the kind of companies I think are not going to be successful.
The ones that are successful think about products holistically. You can look at someone like a Nest. And they focused on simplicity. You bring the device home. There’s a simple setup process. And everything just works.
I’ve unfortunately bought way too many products where the setup process was 10 steps. And most people have a seriously hard time setting this up. And this is just for one device.
If you’re setting up a complete smart home, think about how much time it’s going to take to actually install the 10 to 20 devices that it’s going to take to make your home smart and make your life easier. And if you’re not going to be able to do that, then your product isn’t really worth it. And it’s not really fulfilling the promise of the smart home.
WALTER ISAACSON: Many people working with smart home technology today share Colin Chong’s concern that the promise of the smart home is not being realized. There are too many expensive products that are too hard to install, and then don’t deliver on what they’re promising.
There’s not enough focus on the user experience. And too many products have no real purpose. It’s enough to discourage even a tech geek like Colin Chong.
COLIN CHONG: My home, personally, is not all that smart. The costs to create a smart home today are astronomical. This is really one of the things that is holding the smart home back from mainstream adoption.
For consumers, you’re looking at a massive, massive price jump for a non smart to a smart product. So where you can do a $1 light bulb, you’re looking at $40 to $50 for a smart light bulb. And so the smart home industry is really catering to the top few percent of the population. And I can imagine for the vast majority of the population it’s a very difficult investment to justify.
WALTER ISAACSON: Today, about 25% of American households have some sort of smart device in their homes. For that number to grow, homeowners will have to be convinced that they can get greater value for their money than is often the case today. In areas like energy and home security, that case is not hard to make. Other areas, though, are more problematic.
MIKE KUNIAVSKY: When we work in this space, the thing that we focus on is, how does this technology help someone make a decision that they wouldn’t be able to make otherwise? How does this technology genuinely relieve someone of work that they otherwise don’t want to be doing?
WALTER ISAACSON: Mike Kuniavsky leads the user experience design group at PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center. He spent more than 20 years in digital product development. He believes that in order to make products that people will actually want to use, you have to pay attention to how they actually live and what their real needs are.
MIKE KUNIAVSKY: I think a lot of stuff in the smart home world are essentially solutions looking for a problem. They’re essentially taking the familiar things that we have around us and they’re saying, hey, I can add a connected computer to this. And then, once I’ve added a connected computer, I will figure out what it’s for.
Whereas, in fact, that’s kind of the inverse of, I think, how technology should be designed, where you should be looking at what are the problems that people have that really can benefit from technological solutions. And then, let’s create a technological solution for that.
And that solution might be a device. Or it might be a service, where essentially instead of you having a food preparation robot in your house, what you have is you just have a subscription to a food that you really like that adapts itself to your family’s needs every week. And you don’t actually have to make a robot. All you have to do is know something about those people.
WALTER ISAACSON: Solutions looking for a problem? How about an app to help you buy eggs?
MIKE KUNIAVSKY: The classic one is this, essentially, egg crate that can tell you through an app how many eggs you have. You’re out there somewhere in the world, and you’re like, golly, do I have four eggs or two eggs at home? Should I buy eggs right now? Let me check this app on my phone. But, really, realistically, that’s just not a problem that anyone really has. That’s just really throwing technology at a situation without really understanding whether anybody really has that egg problem.
WALTER ISAACSON: Smart technology is now well-established in areas connected to home comfort, like home thermostats, and to home security, where sophisticated cameras and sensors can make us feel safer, both inside and outside, whether we’re at home or not.
The next and most challenging area for smart home developers is entertainment. Progress on that front has been slower. Because the question, why do I really need this, has been harder to answer. There’s certainly no shortage of interesting and creative things you can do with smart home technology to entertain yourself and your family, especially if you’re prepared to pay to replace your light bulbs with smart bulbs. Blake Kozak.
BLAKE KOZAK: So these $50 light bulbs, what they primarily do is, they change color. So it’s essentially a platform that allows you to connect your lighting to ESPN or the weather. So we could say, if weather.com says it’s going to rain in the next 15 minutes, change my light color to blue. Or you could say, every time my favorite sport team, every time they score a goal, change the light color to this. Things like that.
WALTER ISAACSON: So where do we go from here? One way of answering that question is to remember how we got to this point. Jim Sutherland was able to develop his pioneering Echo IV computer because his employer, Westinghouse, saw no commercial potential in what he was doing in his own basement. And they let him take home a $40,000 memory system to play with. That was crucial to his success.
But equally critical was the fact that his family embraced the computer as one of their own. Jim, his wife, and three young children all saw something in that machine for them, whether it was storing recipes, playing games, or making up Christmas songs. Jim believed that if a computer was going to be in his house, it had to serve the people who live there, not the other way around.
And that may be a useful reminder for people developing smart home technology today. That technology succeeds when it meets people’s real needs and can bend to the often confusing, idiosyncratic, and inefficient reality of family life. Designing technology that doesn’t recognize that isn’t very smart at all.
I’m Walter Isaacson. And you’ve been listening to “Trailblazers,” an original podcast from Dell Technologies. Next episode, we’ll explore the world of how we communicate with each other. And we’ll hear about the surprising story of one of the early adopters of facts technology, Napoleon Bonaparte.
And as we launch this second season of “Trailblazers,” we’d love to hear from you about what you think about the show so far. We have a short survey that we’ve put up on our website DellTechnologies .com/Trailblazers.
It only takes a few minutes to complete. If you have the time, we’d really appreciate hearing your thoughts. Again, you can find a link to the survey at our website, DellTechnologies .com/Trailblazers. Thanks so much for listening.