It was the 1950s. America had just won the war, people were moving to the suburbs and starting families, the economy was sparkling, the space race had just begun, and the future looked bright. It was the rebirth of a generation, and at the center of it all was the American household. Emerging technologies supplied homeowners’ demands for making life around the house easier. Dishwashers were newly affordable, as were refrigerators and laundry machines. So it’s not surprising that, with this profusion of helpful appliances, people began to think about a more automated, connected household.
However, it would be another few decades before manufacturers really warmed to the concept of a “smart home,” and even then it would fail to take flight. So instead, companies looked to a series of recent scientific discoveries to sell products that were fresh, innovative, valuable, and sometimes just ridiculous.
1945 - 1970: Hey Space Age, What Gives?
Throughout the 50s and 60s, the appliance industry boomed thanks to a core set of recently mastered technologies: refrigeration, thermoelectricity, and sanitation. These were huge developments, and led directly to fridges, air conditioners, and dishwashers appearing in most homes around the country.
It was also the start of the space age, a time when awe-inspiring technologies like atomic energy, rocketry, lasers, and even early computers were coming along. Engineers, manufacturers, and the general public alike got caught up in the excitement of the seemingly endless possibilities.
H.F. Koeper, an architect from the University of Minnesota, accurately summed up the relationship between technology and domestic functionality in an AP article from 1954: “The house of the future will be more a matter of 'what the public will ask for, rather than what science will provide, although the latter would be more startling.’”
Over the next couple decades, manufacturers tried their hands at products that were marvels of technology, but were wholly impractical and look truly silly in retrospect.
Some of the most far-out ideas were tacked onto technology that was actually useful. Thermoelectric cooling, for example, was one of the most important advances of the twentieth century (at least as far as domestic technology goes). Semi-conductors had given manufacturers a new, more efficient way of cooling metal through the Peltier Effect, which could then be used to build home air-conditioning units and compact refrigerators, like wine coolers, mini fridges, and chest freezers.
But after thermoelectric engineers had solved universal problems—like rooms being too hot and beer being too warm—they started to stretch their imaginations. In 1953, the Portsmouth Times (of Ohio) asked a panel of appliance industry experts about the home of the future. One individual explained how air conditioning technology would eventually allow homeowners to “bring the charms of [their] garden into the [the] living room.” That is, the ability to suffuse a room with, for example, the “fragrance of rose blossoms.”
Within just a few years, though, manufacturers had drastically tempered their expectations for thermoelectric technology. Air conditioners and mini-fridges have persevered (though compressors are the dominant technology now), but few other practical thermoelectric applications have come along.
Sanitation technology followed a similar arc. Another expert in the Portsmouth Times story imagined machines capable of fully sterilizing dishes. This idea isn’t entirely off-point—sanitation controls are commonplace on dishwashers—but it would be another few years before people realized how utterly unnecessary (and expensive) it is to completely sterilize dishes. Sanitation cycles, the industry would soon realize, were much more practical.
The AP story from 1954 in which Koeper was quoted even imagined a room-temperature fridge that would preserve food by pounding it with gamma rays. While food irradiation is a proven and somewhat common practice today in industrial settings, domestic use is completely unheard of for myriad reasons. For one, it’s pretty unsafe to blast your home with ionizing radiation, even if the cyclotron is pointed squarely at the vegetable drawer. Also, while gamma radiation is a highly effective sterilizer, it can also alter flavor, texture, and destroy certain nutritious compounds.
1970 - Present: The Smart Home
By the late 1960s, most folks seemed to realize that ideas like radioactive food preservers weren’t very practical, and engineers stopped trying to squeeze household product ideas out of every new development in the field of physics.
But still, there remained a fixation on a space-inspired household of the future. A Montreal Gazette article from 1970 imagined the future kitchen as part cooking hub, part cockpit: “The housewife no longer will have to pace between shelves, stove and sink, but will sit comfortably in a swivel chair... She is surrounded by control buttons, television monitors, and cooking equipment.”
There’s still plenty of pacing, and usually no swivel chair, but the author might have been onto something with all the buttons and monitors, predicting an increasingly connected kitchen and home.
That vision would slowly reveal itself over the following decades. In the mid-1980s, experts began to see these abundant technologies as part of a greater domestic whole, and the interest in uniting them throughout the home took hold. This is when companies began using the “smart” prefix.
One imagining of this concept, outlined in a 1985 article in The Prescott Daily Courier, seemed to focus on the need to rework and simplify the wiring of the modern home. This process would allow appliances and utilities to work together, and afford homeowners the convenience of literally calling their homes to start the bath, preheat the oven, or turn down the heat. By that time, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) had even made this a priority project.
Obviously, this market never took off. But why? Stephen Melman, Director of Economic Services at the NAHB, explained that back in the 80s, consumers cared less about a fully integrated smart home than the ability to control specific features of that home. In a sense, they wanted to retain control of individual products because the new options were too comprehensive a change.
“While some buyers responded, for the most part they resisted the complete packages, preferring to choose specific features to be included in their new homes,” Melman said. “The introduction of new products has always been a process of education for the builder using new products and for housing consumers who want to be comfortable with these new technologies.”
It’s ironic—and somewhat prophetic—that the offer of a seamless, automated home was rejected in favor of greater manual control, if only for the sake of familiarity. It illustrates an important lesson for the smart technology market as a whole: When you try to integrate disparate technologies into an all-encompassing system, the barrier to entry seems much greater than it is for individual, single-purpose products.
That takeaway didn’t stop the flow of wild, sensational products, though. In 1997, at the dawn of the Internet age, AP contributor Elizabeth Weise (currently a reporter for USA Today) observed this when she reported on a “future home” assembled by IBM, Compaq, HP, and Intel. Weise ripped into each component, arguing that the high-tech solutions they offered still couldn’t beat the practical familiarity of low-tech alternatives. Looking back, it seems she was correct on most accounts: Video doorbell butlers and home barcode scanners certainly never took off, though flat-panel TVs did.
“The real question is whether the time, money and bother they represent is justified,” Weise wrote. “If you like tinkering and gadgets, it might be. But if you just want to get through the day with a minimum of hassle and a maximum of time and money saved, sometimes the old-fashioned ways work fine.”
The narrative has only just started to change in the past five years, thanks to advances in connectivity and mobile technology like smartphones, WiFi, and cloud computing. Smart grid technology is starting to appear in some cities, allowing appliances to communicate with utilities after all. The smart-appliance category finally seems poised to make headway into kitchens and laundry rooms across America.
We’ll still see some silly and useless products from time to time—it’s part of the process of innovation. But everything seems to be trending toward highly automated households, controlled by a mobile device. What’s different now is that this trend is being pushed not merely by what’s possible, but by technologies that are practical and already integrated into our daily lives.
Next week, we’ll look at how smart appliances will affect businesses and consumers. And in case you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1: What Is a Smart Appliance?
Photos: LIFE Magazine, Aug 9, 1943; The Montreal Gazette, Mar 3, 1970
Update: We added a clarification stating that today's AC units run on compressors, not thermoelectric technology.