"The idea of using the existing AC wiring to transmit signals to control lights and appliances was conceived (like so many Pico/X-10 ideas) over several drinks in a bar one night. If we had known then how long it would take us to get to where we are now, we would probably have moved on to project X-11 :-)"

How it all started

Dave Rye

How it all started
by Dave Rye

"The idea of using the existing AC wiring to transmit signals to control lights and appliances was conceived (like so many Pico/X-10 ideas) over several drinks in a bar one night. If we had known then how long it would take us to get to where we are now, we would probably have moved on to project X-11 :-)"

I’m often asked where, when, and why X-10 was technology developed, so here’s a historical overview of my 23 years with X-10.

The roots of X-10 are with a company called Pico Electronics in Glenrothes, Scotland. Pico was founded in 1970 by a handful of engineers who used to work for General Instrument Microelectronics (G.I.). The founders of Pico had the idea that it was possible to develop a single chip calculator (most calculators at the time used at least 5 ICs). Pico did this and this calculator IC was actually the world's first microprocessor (despite what Intel, or Texas Instruments would like you to believe). Pico went on to develop a range of calculator ICs which were manufactured by G.I. and sold to calculator manufacturers such as Bowmar, Litton, and Casio. Pico were paid royalties on ICs and as the price of calculator ICs dropped from $20 to less than a Dollar, the principals of Pico decided they needed to develop total products rather than just ICs.

In 1974 they came up with the idea of a record changer that would select tracks on a regular vinyl LP record. (This was the point at which I joined Pico). Pico developed the entire product including the custom IC (their background), all mechanical aspects, the cabinet, etc. We needed a manufacturer and BSR was then the world's biggest manufacturer of record changers. So a new venture was formed called Accutrac Ltd, a 50-50 partnership between BSR and Pico. BSR manufactured the record changer, called the Accutrac 2000, and went on to manufacture several models developed by Pico.

The success of the Accutrac projects funded the development of the next great idea. The Accutrac had many unique features, one of which was that it was remote controlled. It used a Pico developed ultrasonic remote control (not IR). Remember, this was back in the mid 70's before it was even popular for TVs to be remotely controlled. The remote control aspect of Accutrac spawned the idea of remotely controlling lights and appliances, and so in 1975 project X-10 was conceived (there were 8 different calculator IC projects and Accutrac was project X-9).

The idea of using the existing AC wiring to transmit signals to control lights and appliances was conceived (like so many Pico/X-10 ideas) over several drinks in a bar one night. If we had known then how long it would take us to get to where we are now, we would probably have moved on to project X-11 :-)

Anyway, the concept was formulated, the ICs were developed over a 3 year period, and extensive field trials were performed in a house we rented for a year in Roslyn, Long Island, NY. After much testing we found that the system worked fine during the day, but always seemed to stop working when the boss turned up to see it in the evenings. After much investigation it was discovered that when everyone came home from work and started turning on their appliances, the noise on the AC line increased to the point where the system stopped working. The fix that the Pico engineers came up with was to synchronize the powerline transmissions to the zero crossing point of the AC line (when there is less noise). This became the crux of the patent that protected Pico and X-10 from competition in the early years. It also meant back to the drawing board to completely re-develop the range of custom ICs that had been produced on the first go-around!

In 1978 X-10 was introduced to the American public, Radio Shack being the first customer. Radio Shack are to this day still one of the biggest retailers of X-10 products (private labeled for them as the plug 'n power system). Sears, Roebuck were soon to become our second customer. We already had a relationship with BSR, they had a good name and good distribution, so we formed another 50-50 venture with them and founded X-10 Ltd. On the evening of the press announcement to introduce the system we still didn't have a name for it, so engineers being engineers, we settled on the name "The BSR System X-10." (it was later renamed the X-10 Powerhouse system).

In 1978 the "system" consisted of a 16 channel Command Console, a Lamp Module, and an Appliance Module. We very soon followed up with the addition of a Wall Switch Module. A year later we introduced the first X-10 Timer. This time we thought we really needed a proper name for it, so we hired the best Ad agency around at the time and spent a lot of money to come up with a name. The name they came up with (and we went along with) was "The Timer" (so much for Ad agencies!). The first major retailer to carry The Timer was Macy’s and although nothing like this had ever been seen before by anyone in the world, they introduced it for the first time ON SALE at $10 off! That’s retailers for you! We quickly found out that in the US retail market there are only three things that matter - Price, Price, and Price!

Right from the beginning we intended that X-10 products would be produced at low cost and in high volume so we set out to manufacture the products in the Far East. At first we used sub-contractors in Malaysia. By 1984 we had moved manufacturing to Hong Kong, had set up an office there, and at one point were managing 17 sub-contractors. This became a managerial nightmare. We found out that some of our sub-contractors were sub-sub-contracting into China. We thought "if they can do that, so can we" so we set up a factory in Shenzhen, China.

Our first factory was in an area of Shenzhen which at the time was little more than a village. Now, 14 years later that area looks just like Hong Kong. We have since moved further into China, outside the first Shenzhen border. The move was forced upon us by the rapid expansion in the area. Our factory manager was notified one day that we would have to move. He mentioned it to the boss, who's initial reaction was "yeah, this is just a tactic to increase our rent." Discussions went on for a while and our general manager tried to convince the boss that this was for real. "We really would have to move as they were going to demolish the building we were in!" The boss decided to go up to the factory and see what all the fuss was about. Much to his surprise he discovered a great expanse of wasteland, full of bulldozers, with our factory (a lone building) standing in the middle. He turned to the general manager and said "I guess they're serious." :-)

Needless to say we had to move the whole factory, and quickly! In a matter of a month we had moved the entire operation further into China and set up a new factory in a brand new building that had no access roads and no plumbing! We had engineers (who normally sit in a lab with soldering iron in hand) digging out trucks, fixing generators (there was no electricity) and unblocking drains. It was quite an experience, but having been through it we now know how difficult it is to "set up shop in China" and this (being in China) as much as any reason, is one of X-10's greatest strengths today. After seeing how "easy" it was to set up the factory, we set up another one right next door and we now have two factories.

A significant milestone in the Home Automation industry was the introduction of the GE Homeminder in 1984. This was developed and manufactured for GE by Pico/X-10. It was developed in less than a year and to this date represents a phenomenal product that was way ahead of its time. It was a "VCR styled" package a bit bigger than a cable set-top box. It connected to the TV (like a cable box) and was operated by an IR remote. It put graphical representations of lamps and appliances on the TV screen and let you control your whole home from your TV. It also allowed control from outside telephones. There was also a version built into a high end TV. Most of its features are available today in other products but this was back in 1984 and it retailed for under $500 (including modules).

Unfortunately it was ill-fated. It was marketed by GE's video products group in Portsmouth, VA. Their primary business was TV and when they got into trouble in that area they closed the division. Homeminder became history. X-10 did OK though - we bought them all back from GE (50,000 of them) in a fire sale. We re-packaged them and sold them to Radio Shack who blew them out in a sale at $59.99 (remember they originally sold for $500) and Radio Shack ordered 400,000 modules to go with them!

The idea for the Homeminder came about because the year before we had developed the world's first computer interface for the Mattel Aquarius computer (anyone remember that one?). The Aquarius died before it was introduced and we swiftly re-packaged the interface and rewrote the software for the Radio Shack Color Computer. In the mean time we "stuffed" the Mattel interface into a GE TV and demonstrated the concept of Home Control from a TV. We also showed it to RCA and Zenith, but GE was the one that got excited by it. This rest is history.

The Mattel interface, which became the Radio Shack Color Computer Interface, later became the CP290 which today is still one of X-10's (and the HA industry's) most successful products. It has lately been overshadowed by the introduction of X-10's CM11A, a two-way version with more advanced, and powerful ActiveHome software.

In 1989 we introduced the world's first low cost self-installed wireless security system - The SS5400. It was a breakthrough product for its time and there is still nothing that compares to it for price-performance. It retailed for $79 for a four-piece system. We went on to develop the DS7000 Voice-Dialer security system, the DC8700 Monitored security system, as well as Personal Assistance versions of both "I've fallen - I can't get up." Today X-10 is the world's largest manufacturer of wireless self-installed security systems. In 1995 X-10 set up its own monitoring station called ORCA Monitoring Services in Seattle, Washington. Today it monitors security systems that we developed and manufacture for Radio Shack, Philips Consumer Electronics (Magnavox) and of course our own X-10 Powerhouse brand.

In 1988 X-10 started manufacturing universal IR remotes for Universal Electronics Inc. (UEI) under the One-For-All brand. We expanded this business to the point where we were manufacturing 1 million remotes a month. We now make remotes for Thomson (RCA/GE), Radio Shack, ourselves, and others. We have the best IR code library in the business and are one of the biggest manufacturers of IR remotes in the world.

We recently expanded our computer related products with the introduction of a wireless RF MouseREMOTE that lets you control your PC from across the room (or from another room). This, together with our breakthrough 2.4 GHz Big Picture system, lets you play DVD movies on your PC, check your E-mail, surf the NET, and play games on your PC, while viewing the content on your big screen TV in another room in your home. And you have full control of the PC from where you’re sitting!

I joined Pico as an electronics design engineer in 1974. From 1976 thru 1979 I spent most of my time providing technical support to BSR in Birmingham, England on the Accutrac products that they were manufacturing under our guidance and supervision. In 1980 I developed an X-10 controller that allowed a physically handicapped person to control their environment via a puff 'n sip switch. I was awarded recognition in the Johns Hopkins First National Search for products to aid the disabled in 1980, and again in 1990.

In 1979 I made several trips to the USA to give technical support to BSR during the initial phases of the X-10 introduction. I continued for many years traveling back and forth between Scotland and the USA before eventually becoming a permanent US resident. During the initial years I spent most of my time running the technical support activities for X-10 within BSR. In 1980 we started manufacturing products for Leviton Manufacturing Co. and I spent the next 4 years splitting my time between supporting BSR and Leviton.

I spent a lot of time on the road for Leviton and traveled all over the States troubleshooting installations for them. Today Leviton sells primarily to home builders, but initially, they concentrated on the commercial end of the business (an area which they subsequently sold off to Advanced Control Technologies (ACT)). Many of the products we developed for Leviton (which are now distributed by ACT) came about as a result of problems I found in the field, and which Pico had to find solutions for. For example: it was not known until a particular installation didn’t work that there was a 30 degree phase shift between the zero crossing point of 120V phases, and 208V phases (in a 3 phase distribution system). This might be obvious now, but back in the early 80's it wasn't. This resulted in the development of the Smart Repeater, which today is installed in every X-10 based commercial installation.

Supporting Leviton was fun to say the least. My travels took me all over the place including a trip to Hawaii where I was "stuck" for 10 days trying to get an installation in a Shopping Mall to work. Not a bad place to get stuck for 10 days! But one of the funniest incidents (in retrospect) was a visit to the Tucson Mall in Arizona. I had been there several times trying to get the system to work reliably. The system controlled all the lights in the HUGH Shopping Mall from a Tandy Computer. It seemed to work every time I went there but was intermittent as soon as I left. The problem turned out to be that the electrician had wired a cabinet full of X-10 modules next to the main breaker panel, but although he had tied all the neutral wires on the modules together, he had not actually tied them to neutral. The X-10 signals were finding their way to the modules across live and ground instead of live and neutral. However, the "funny" part was how I found the problem:

I wanted to measure the signal strength at the modules by continuously transmitting X-10 "P1" On-Off signals. However, I was working with the modules that controlled the Mall lights and I didn't want them to cycle on and off. So I decided to remove the LOAD wire from a module that I had set to P1. These were 277V modules and I was doing this live! But I'm an engineer, and know what I'm doing, right? BANG!

Just before the bang the Leviton guy I was working with had left to go and get some tools from the car, and had left me locked in the electrical closet (it could only be opened from the inside because he didn’t have the key). When he heard the bang (which knocked out half the lights in the Mall) he came running back but couldn't get into the closet. I was temporarily blinded and couldn't find the door to let him in. When I did eventually find the door, he was greeted by a black-faced, somewhat stunned Dave Rye.

What had happened was that when I removed the live load wire from the module, it had sprung back and touched the metal cabinet. Normally this would have just shorted 277V live to neutral and perhaps tripped a single breaker. But because (as it turned out) there was no neutral on the modules, what I had actually done was put phase-to-phase voltage (480V) across ALL the modules in the panel!. This blew up every module (20 of them), tripped the main 400A panel breaker, tripped the main disconnect to the panel, and blacked out a whole section of the Mall.

Fortunately for me, my arm was in front of my face and prevented me from suffering permanent damage to my eyesight (although I was blinded for several minutes). My arm was another story! I had to be rushed to the emergency room and was treated for second degree burns. My wife still laughs at the story when she thinks of the image of me opening that electrical closet door with a black face! :-)

In the early years I was involved primarily with customer support, then I discovered the Macintosh! In 1984 I purchased one of the first Macs. It had 512K of RAM and no hard drive! But boy what you could do with that Mac. It was truly a revolution within X-10. I was one of the pioneer users of desktop publishing. I used a program called ReadySetGo, before there was even such a thing as PageMaker. I took on the responsibility of producing all X-10's owner’s manuals, literature, and packaging, etc. all of which I did in-house on that that little old 512K Mac. I was one of the first to purchase the original Apple LaserWriter. I was first (in our company) to use a frame grabber, a scanner, a digital camera, and so on. Today we have more people involved in packaging but I still produce all our owners manuals and most of our literature. Alas, the furthest I got with the Mac was a Mac SE with 1 Meg of RAM and a 20 Meg hard drive. These days I do everything on a Wintel PC :-( But I’m still amazed at what I was able to do with that Mac!

Today I am Vice President and Technical Manager for X-10 (USA) Inc., in New Jersey. A big part of my responsibilities is supporting the OEM division. OEM is the biggest part of our business and I am the technical link between OEM customers like IBM, Thomson (RCA), Leviton, Radio Shack, Stanley, etc. and our engineering in both Hong Kong and Pico in Scotland (Pico is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of X-10 Ltd). In 1984 BSR were starting to get into financial trouble and so we split off from them and incorporated X-10 (USA) Inc. (then a wholly owned subsidiary of BSR). In 1987 the principals of X-10 Ltd. purchased the 50% back from BSR and X-10 once again became independent. The business has grown in leaps and bounds since then. Today X-10 has an installed base of over 100 million units. X-10 has changed a lot over the years and I’ve grown with it. I was 23 years old when I joined Pico and that was 23 years ago. I’ve spent ½ my life with X-10! It’s been a fun 23 years and I’m looking forward to what the future brings. It’s had its ups and downs, as they say "pioneers usually have some arrows in their back." But X-10 is going from strength to strength and the future has never been brighter!

For more information on X-10 and its products visit our WEB site at www.x10.com

All trademarks used are the properties of their respective owners.

Dave Rye is a leading authority on Home Automation. He has been actively involved in the business for over 20 years and has written many articles on the subject.

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