From toasters to Tesla: The History of IoT

An in-depth exploration of the history of IoT spanning from the early nineteenth century to the present day, including an enterprise IoT deep-dive and some predictions for the future.


When you think about the Internet of Things (IoT), what do you picture in your mind? Perhaps a smart kettle, a connected car, or even one of the innumerable industrial use cases for the technology that are rapidly coming to the fore.

IoT promises a fridge that knows when you need more milk, while at the same time the technology is paving the way for meaningful advances in areas like farming, giving growers more data insights to help tackle the yield challenges they face. Having now entered the region of $1 trillion as an industry, the rapid growth of IoT has left many wondering where this revolution came from. When we put together the many pieces of its origin story, we find that IoT has an interesting history and is set to change the world.

The foundations (1800 – 1974)

First of all, we have to look back in time to the 24th of May 1844. It was on this day that Samuel Morse famously used a telegraph system to send Alfred Vail a message that read: “What hath God wrought!” This was a foundational moment in the history of IoT as one machine communicated with another for the first time, something that had been thought about from early on in the 19th century. At the very beginning of the 20th century the world witnessed the first radio voice transmission, and fifty years later work would begin to develop computers.

In 1926, Nikola Tesla expressed a profound vision of future connectivity, 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.”

With the cornerstones set in place, the next stage in the timeline is the arrival of the internet in the 1960s when Arpanet first connected Stanford and UCLA. Some key milestones that followed this include the first online message in 1969, the first email in 1971, and the use of the term “internet” to describe a single, all-encompassing IP network in 1974.

The birth of IoT (1982 – 2000)

In the early 1980s, students and professors working at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science connected a Coca Cola vending machine via the internet to determine its stock levels and how cold its contents were. This innovation was developed to prevent disappointment and wasted trips to the main terminal building. Though they didn’t realise it at the time, this light-hearted piece of genius gave a glimpse into the way we would seek to build a connected world.

Today the notion of connected appliances and utensils is not unusual, and an early example marks another important milestone in the history of IoT. In 1989, the computer scientist and author, John Romkey, accepted a challenge to connect a toaster to the internet. He was successful in connecting a Sunbeam Deluxe Automatic Radiant Control Toaster with IP networking and a management protocol, enabling him to turn the power on and control the darkness of the toast based on how long the toaster was given power.

The next key development came in 1995 with the completion of the first GPS satellite network, set up by the U.S. Department of Defense. Prior to the network of 27 satellites being fully operational, civilian use was allowed from the 1980s, with the government setting up contracts with private companies to develop portable airborne, shipboard and man-pack GPS receivers.

At the end of the century in 1999, the Internet of Things term officially came to be when it was used by Kevin Ashton of MIT while working with Proctor & Gamble. The computer scientist sought to influence decisionmakers at the organisation to use sensors within the supply chain to collect data, and the name he chose for the proposition became universal.

Building momentum (2000 – 2020)

In the year 2000 another connected kitchen appliance makes a noteworthy appearance in our timeline, this was when LG launched the world’s first connected refrigerator. Because of the product’s price tag of over $20,000, this IoT device didn’t mark a widespread consumer adoption of connected devices, but it did foreshadow a trend that we have become familiar with today.

While the first connected fridge didn’t introduce connected devices to the wider world, this next innovation had a seismic effect. In 2007 we saw the release of the first iPhone, which not only brought the concept of connected devices to the masses, but the idea of connected wireless devices as well. Mobile devices have become a central part of the IoT story, whether you use your smartphone to monitor your security system, or to monitor sensors in an industrial setting.

The year 2008 also staged an important development in awareness to the concept of IoT, during which the world’s first IoT conference was held in Switzerland, bringing together leading researchers and practitioners from both academia and industry. The purpose of the conference was to share ideas, applications and research results, and the event featured 92 high-quality submissions.

Shortly after this in 2009 Google began testing self-driving cars, a theme which would remain prominent in the IoT through to 2016 and beyond as the likes of GM, Uber and Tesla all began developing self-driving technology. In the interim Amazon released the Echo smart home hub in 2014, which caught the attention of businesses and consumers across the world as a new, accessible way for people to live and interact with technology via IoT.

Although many of the iconic landmarks in the rise of IoT have been consumer applications, massive progress has also been made in enterprise applications with revolutionary potential. Organisations across the world are using IoT to harvest masses of data to enhance the speed that AI systems can be trained and developed, while edge computing and IoT are being combined to bring connectivity to the world’s most remote locations, moving us closer to the vision of global connectivity Nikola Tesla had in 1926.

A spotlight on enterprise IoT

Enterprise IoT applications have come a very long way in the run up to where we are in 2020, not only in terms of sophistication but also in terms of mass uptake among enterprise businesses. According to a Transforma Insights survey, over 80% of companies are already actively adopting IoT, seeking to enhance efficiency, performance and customer experience.

This year manufacturing is the vertical leading the way with the most IoT uptake, removing smart city applications from the top spot. In manufacturing, IoT is being used to harness cloud and edge innovations with a view to setting up digital factories with improved operational performance. Transportation, energy, retail and healthcare are other verticals at the front of the pack.

Energy is another interesting sector to look into, with companies working hard to cater for the world’s increasing energy consumption. IoT is being applied in every corner of the industry, from the interactions between organisations, to transmission and distribution itself. IoT-based innovations in these areas include optimising cloud infrastructure and accelerating the process of setting up AI applications.

Predictions for the future

In this article we have explored the key events that have brought us the Internet of Things we know today, but we are yet to see the true potential this technology has to shape our future. Our recap of the history of IoT would not truly be complete without a look at what the past and present mean for the next stage in the timeline.

Security: Amongst the many benefits brought about by IoT, some new challenges have been unearthed as well. With so many new devices being rapidly manufactured and deployed, cybercriminals have been able to leverage unsecured endpoints to launch attacks, and in some cases large numbers of devices have been compromised to facilitate DDoS attacks. These threats look set to persist as manufacturers and security organisations battle to ensure new endpoints are secured across wide networks and beyond.

5G: Fifth-generation cellular networks are set to fuel the growth of IoT on account of increased speeds and ability to connect a greater number of devices simultaneously, with more data being managed more quickly and more efficiently.

Billions more devices: In 2016 there were 4.7 billion things connected to the internet according to IoT Analytics, by 2021 we can expect to be closing in on 12 billion. By sustaining this rate of growth there are likely to be more than 20 billion devices connected to the internet by as early as 2025.