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The Alchemy of IoT, Part 2: IoT Through the Ages

…and everything you’ll ever need to know to pass your IoT history class.

The Alchemy of IoT, as we defined it in Part I of our Alchemy of IoT series is the true transmutation from a world of visible and connected objects to a Smart and (Almost) Invisible World of Autonomous Interconnected Things.

As Mark Weiser, past Chief Scientist at Xerox PARC (USA), mentioned in his article “The Computer for the 21st Century”: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”

You know what? This

IoT Reality

is catching up fast!

But How Did We Get Here?

Who brought us to where we are now? The birth of the internet is an obvious starting point. But, do you know who coined the term Internet of Things? And did you know that if it weren’t for Carnegie Mellon’s alumni having a soft spot for a cold Coke, we wouldn’t have had the first true internet appliance?

That’s what we’re here to tell you. But before we get there, we’re assuming a lot about the internet, aren’t we? For instance, that Tim Berners-Lee invented it in the early 90s and all that jazz.

But there’s a little bit of backstory before we get there, and I’m going to dispute that notion: I’m telling you that the internet existed before that, just didn’t go by that name.

We all know that, without a network, there is no IoT. So, if IoT requires network connectivity and we know that connectivity is electricity, a magnetic field and then a signal… then the existence of IoT can be traced back to the 19th century.

I’m not kidding. Stay tuned.


I was born in 1832. My creator is a Russian baron. He invented me in his apartment and used me to communicate with another machine, just like me, that was set in another room. As his invention, I am the result of a signal transmission using a binary system — basically, what all your computers, mobile phones, tablets, and embedded systems use in your current era!

Who am I?

I am the famous electromagnetic telegraph born and raised in Russia thanks to my inventor, Baron Pavel L’vovitch Schilling.

IoT telegraph

By Zacatecnik – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3726135

You know what? This technology was so futuristic that it even worked wirelessly. Can you imagine? Wireless machines communicating in the 19th century, shaping the future of communications, transmitting what was essentially binary code! It’s crazy! (When exactly did we get tethered anyway?)

Time for an Internet Appliance… and a Smile

In 1979, a brilliant star was born.

Just three years later, in 1982, a group of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University created the first IoT application. At that time, they called it an Internet Appliance. They hooked up microswitches to a Coke machine to sense how many bottles were left in the machine. Then, they wrote a server application to keep control of bottle temperatures. Students could remotely connect to the Coke machine, send a command, and get a response.

IoT coke

Internet Coke Machine. Source: Know Your Meme

In 1990, John Romkey created a toaster that could be turned on and off from the Internet.

In 1993, Quentin Stafford-Fraser and Paul Jardetzky created the Trojan Room Coffee Pot. That enabled them to monitor the coffee levels and upload a picture to the building’s server. It was later brought online when browsers started supporting images. Yes, kids, browsers were text-only back then.

In 1997, Paul Saffo started talking about sensors as “a new technology that comes along and completely reshapes the information landscape.” —Sensors: The Next Wave of Infotech Innovation.

In 1998, Mark Weiser described ubiquitous computing as “(…) roughly the opposite of virtual reality. Where virtual reality puts people inside a computer-generated world, ubiquitous computing forces the computer to live out here in the world with people.”

Becoming IoT

The most interesting historical moment was in 1999 when Kevin Ashton, executive director of the Auto-ID center at MIT, coined the term Internet of Things:

I could be wrong, but I’m fairly sure the phrase ‘Internet of Things’ started life as the title of a presentation I made at Procter & Gamble (P&G) in 1999. Linking the new idea of RFID in P&G’s supply chain to the then-red-hot topic of the Internet was more than just a good way to get executive attention. It summed up an important insight which is still often misunderstood.

Also in 1999, Neil Gross wrote for BusinessWeek:

In the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations. This skin is already being stitched together. It consists of millions of embedded electronic measuring devices: thermostats, pressure gauges, pollution detectors, cameras, microphones, glucose sensors, EKGs, electroencephalographs. These will probe and monitor cities and endangered species, the atmosphere, our ships, highways and fleets of trucks, our conversations, our bodies–even our dreams.

Then came 2003-2004, when the term Internet of Things is mentioned in mainstream publications like The Guardian, Scientific American, and the Boston Globe.

In 2005, The UN’s International Telecommunications Union talks about IoT:

A new dimension has been added to the world of information and communication technologies (ICTs): from anytime, anyplace connectivity for anyone, we will now have connectivity for anything. Connections will multiply and create an entirely new dynamic network of networks – an Internet of Things.

The second most interesting historical moment came when the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG) declared that the Internet of Things was born between 2008-2009 at the exact moment when more “things or objects” were connected to the Internet than people:

Citing the growth of smartphones, tablet PCs, etc, the number of devices connected to the Internet was brought to 12.5 billion in 2010, while the world’s human population increased to 6.8 billion, making the number of connected devices per person more than 1 (1.84 to be exact) for the first time in history.

Back to the Present

Moving on to the present time, IoT has become an integral part of our daily lives, with embedded systems, projects, and platforms accessible to everyone interested in exploring this Alchemy such as Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Mosquitto MQTT, Particle IO and tons of open source and enterprise IoT projects available online.

IoT today

The big bang of business. Source: Wavefront

IoT’s major Big Bang was when wireless technologies, microcontrollers, sensors, microservices, and the Internet converged. This convergence gave birth to a large array of distributed micro-applications that operate independently yet are able to communicate via a network.

It is no surprise, then, that the public launch of IPv6 in 2011 allowed for the existence of 2128 IP addresses. As Steven Leibson explains: “We could assign an IPv6 address to every atom on the surface of the earth, and still have enough addresses left to do another 100+ earths.”

You Spin Me Right Round, IoT

OK, I’ve said enough. My head is spinning around in this IoT multiverse. For a more detailed history about IoT, check out Internet of Things (IoT) History.

But please, keep in mind that the most important date was in 1979. Without it, you wouldn’t even be reading this article. (True story!)

About the author

Shirad Salaheddine

Shirad is only happy when he has something to tinker with or dream about. These days he's crazy about data science, machine learning, the Internet of Things, and how to tie it all together with OutSystems.

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