Lucky Lindy meets my Grandmother

Phil Kingery | Advanced Control Technologies, Inc.

Lucky Lindy meets my Grandmother
(or, Home Automation: where we’ve been, where we’re at and where we’re going)
by Phil Kingery

In all truth, Charles Lindbergh never met my grandmother, but both have played a role, albeit small, in my perception of Home Automation. My Grandmother Florence was born in Flat Rock, Indiana in 1910 and was a young woman of 16 when Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight across the Atlantic. She has seen a lot of changes in her long life. She remembers using kerosene lanterns in her home. She recalls the hand-operated water pump being several long strides outside the kitchen door. On cold winter mornings she would take warm water from beside the wood stove to prime the pump. The pump handle was often so cold that she had to be careful not to let her mittens freeze to the metal. Her first experience with what would later be called "home automation" was when her family built a new farm house with the water pump "inside" the kitchen.

Moving the water pump into the house was a tremendous first step for her and her family. It is staggering to think of all the technical innovations in "HA" she has witnessed in her life. The practical, incandescent electric light bulb had been invented by Thomas Edison while her parents were still children. However, it was the work of men like Nikola Tesla who made it possible to get the needed electricity to rural areas like Flat Rock. Even while Lucky Lindy was flying to Paris, only a few towns the size of Flat Rock had electricity.

Alexander Bell’s telephone was a modern technical marvel at that time, and yet again, only the larger cities had telephone service. Men like Marconi and others were also working on the idea of sending sound "through the air", but the idea of a radio in everyone’s home was years away.

During my grandmother’s early years, more towns began to have movie theaters. She can recall taking the train to nearby Indianapolis to go to the silent movies of the day. But as the 1920’s gave way to the 1930’s, the great depression deepened. Technical innovations moved very slowly.

As is always the case, terrible things can occur that speed the development of new technologies: December 7, 1941. As the United States was drawn into the war, scientists and engineers began working on things that would not only help win the war, but would ultimately have an effect on Home Automation. Radio tubes became smaller and more reliable for use in ships and aircraft. (This led to radios being practical for homes and civilian automobiles.) The uses of radio expanded to not only voice, but data. (Now we have key chain remotes to unlock our cars, open our garage doors and arm our security systems.) Powerful high frequency waves were used to detect enemy airplanes long before they could be seen. (We now have microwave ovens and radar detectors.)

After the war technology continued to expand. In 1947, Bell Labs announced the next big step in electronics: the transistor. Then into the 1950’s (a time of my own recollection) we began to see more electronics in the home. I can recall the day that my father bought a second television for our home. This was especially unusual for that time as most homes in the country either had one or none. We now had two and for the first time, my father could watch "Wagon Train" on the big set, while my sister, brother and I watched "The Wonderful World of Disney" on the other. Both sets were black and white, but at that time, we didn’t care. The big set was attached to the roof antenna, but our little 12-inch set only had rabbit ears. Mickey was a little fuzzy.

Remote control began to emerge around this time, also. I recall going to a rich relative’s home and being fascinated by their "remote control television". It was a big monster in a hard wood cabinet the size of an office desk. The pastel colors of their "color" television were not very life-like, but that didn’t matter. It was COLOR! What really fascinated me was the remote control. Now, they still had to turn it on, adjust the volume and all of that, but then they could sit down in their easy chair and "change channels" remotely. This was accomplished by a plastic tube running from the back of the TV set to a large rubber bulb, like a turkey baster. Every time you squeezed the rubber bulb, the channel changer would advance one channel. Going from channel 4 to channel 6 only took two squeezes. At that time we only had three channels. It was a little more difficult going from channel 8 back to channel 4 because it took nine squeezes. You also had to endure the audio hiss and video frazzle of the all those vacant in-between channels. I remember getting in trouble for jumping up and down on the rubber bulb trying to see how fast I could change the channels.

In 1978 remote control took a new step when Pico Engineering patented the "X-10" protocol. This was a whole new way of "remote control". The "turkey baster" idea had not lasted very long. Other attempts at remote control such as "ultra-sonic" hand-held devices also had their down side. Now, with the promise of the X-10 system, nearly everything that was plugged into your home’s electrical distribution system could be "commanded" to come "ON" or go "OFF" by another device that was also plugged into an outlet. The first modules were simple and made only for simple home use.

Today, however, there are dozens of companies that manufacture X-10 compatible devices. Some (like PCS in California) produce new dimmer modules that have many new features. Other companies manufacture sophisticated whole-house, intelligent controllers (like JDS and HomeVision). Still others (like Advanced Control Technologies) make devices that enable the X-10 signal to be distributed onto higher voltage, 3-phase electrical distribution systems like 347/600v in Canada, or 240/415v in Australia.

Another remote control technology had also came along in the early years of electronics. For many hand held remote applications, the new infrared (or "IR") transmitters made simple line-of-site remote control more reliable. CEBus first began as an effort to standardize the use of IR so that changing the volume with your Sony TV remote would not cause your Pioneer stereo to go berserk. CEBus has now become a standard incorporating everything from coax, twisted-pair and power line communications as well as the original infrared standards.

Nearly everyone reading this has at least one computer in his house right now. By "computer" I mean that big unit with the screen, keyboard and disk drive. I’m not counting the multiple micro-processors in your car, nor the one in your alarm panel, the one in your microwave oven, the one in your coffee maker or the ones in your Nintendo (the big one or the pocket models).

Many of you have 2 computers. That "new" Pentium with the 12x CD-Rom drive and the 28.8 or 36.6 modem is the one you use to surf the net. Your "old" one, the 486DX with the slower drive and old 14.4 modem, has been relegated to the basement to run (you guessed it) your home automation system. That home automation system is most likely comprised of a lot of X-10 stuff, both modules and hardwired devices. Many of you also have interfaced your system to include IR control of your stereo and perhaps the home theater. A few of you have even connected it to your alarm panel.

So where do you think all this is going. We have come a long way from moving my grandmother’s pump into the kitchen. We now have the capability of fairly reliable voice commands to activate nearly every electrical gizmo in our homes. The rest is scheduled and controlled by an intelligent controller to which we have given autonomy. It sometimes frightens me to think that my wife and I would have a hard time getting by without our computers, fax machine, web connection, 4 televisions, 5 telephones and all the other modern do-dads that my Grandmother never could have imagined.

I was recently asked to help troubleshoot an X-10 coupling problem at a residential installation in the Detroit area. It was a beautiful old home just oozing with character. It had the charm that confirmed its origins in the 1930’s. The problem was quickly determined. It is unusual for homes, constructed in the 1930’s or even today, to be built with 3-phase 120/208v power. But this one did. Trying to use a Coupler Repeater for 120/240v single phase power (which is used on over 99% of homes in North America) would not work. We had to use a 3-phase repeater.

As we were working around the home, I came upon a beautiful mural painted on a wall on the second floor. It was a map of the world with all the original TWA air routes in the 1930’s. This was not unusual given the original owner of the house. You see, the house was built by a man and his wife who had moved to Detroit after the kidnapping and death of their baby. He and other investors founded TWA. I think Charles Lindbergh would be pleased to see all the home automation equipment that is now running his old house.


Phillip Kingery is the X-10 support representative for Advanced Control Technologies, Inc. Indianapolis, Indiana and is a well known instructor of X-10 technical classes routinely held around the country. His email address is: actpccpek@aol.com


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