The history of X10


The History of X10
By Edward B.Driscoll, Jr.

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Today, most people take X10 for granted. The fact that X10 modules can be purchased in Radio Shack, (Radio Shack to this day is still one of the biggest retailers of X10 products) has made X10 the McDonalds of home automation. But remote control of appliances and lighting through the existing powerlines of the home was a major breakthrough in home automation in the mid-1970s. (Thanks to Jeff Denenholz of X10 for the details of their history)
In 1970, a group of engineers started a company called Pico Electronics in Glenrothes, Scotland. Pico revolutionized the calculator industry by developing the first single chip calculator. (Most calculators at the time used at least 5 chips, known as Integrated Circuits, ICs) Today, X10 claims that this Contrary to popular belief, this calculator IC was the world’s first microprocessor. Pico went on to develop a range of calculator ICs which were manufactured by General Instruments and sold to calculator manufacturers such as Bowmar, Litton, and Casio. When the price of calculator IC’s began to plunge, Pico decided to focus on developing an actual commercial product versus concentrating on just ICs.
In 1974, the Pico engineers jointly developed a record changer that would select tracks on a regular vinyl LP with BSR, which at the time was the world’s biggest manufacturer of record changers. The Accutrac could be operated by remote control based on a device Pico developed using ultrasonic signals. This led directly to the idea of remotely controlling lights and appliances. In 1975, the X10 project was conceived. (It was simply the tenth project that Pico had worked on. There were 8 different calculator IC projects and the Accutrac was project X-9) The concept of using existing AC wiring to transmit signals to control lights and appliances was born.
In 1978, after several years of refining the technology, X10 products began to appear in Radio Shack stores. Shortly thereafter, X10 products appeared in Sears stores. A partnership with BSR was formed, known as X10 Ltd, and the BSR System X10 was born. The system at that time consisted of a 16 channel Command Console, A lamp module, and an Appliance module. Soon afterwards came the Wall Switch module and the first X10 Timer.
By 1984, Pico had developed a joint venture with GE for a product called the Homeminder. It was a VCR styled package a bit bigger than a cable set top box. It connected to the TV and was operated by an infrared remote. Eventually the GE division responsible for the Homeminder was closed and the units were repackaged and sold to Radio Shack.
In the early 1980s, X10 lacked an official computer interface. Dave Rye of X10 says that “In the early days there were a lot of computer enthusiasts using X10. There were third party computer interfaces available even before we introduced one. e.g. one by Steve Ciarcia of Circuit Cellar Ink magazine (marketed by Micromint).”
Shortly after the Homeminder, X10 developed their first computer interface for Mattel’s short-lived Aquarius computer. X10’s Aquarius computer interface eventually morphed first into the Radio Shack Color Computer Interface, and then into X10’s long lived CP-290 unit, which was sold until the X10 replaced it with the ActiveHome controller in the late 1990s. Over the years, the CP-290 has had a long list of both “official” and shareware software so that it could be used with Apple IIs, Macs, DOS, and Windows in all of its many versions.
It was also in 1984, according to Dave Rye, a vice president and technical manager with X10 (USA) Inc., that “BSR went belly up and so we pulled out in 1984 and formed X10 (USA) Inc. (we being Pico). Pico is now a wholly owed subsidiary of X10 Ltd.
In 1989, X10 introduced the first low-cost self-installed wireless security system. Then came the Voice Dialer security system, the Monitored security system, as well as Personal Assistance versions. In 1995, X10 set up its own monitoring station called Orca Monitoring Services in Seattle, Washington. Today, it monitors security systems developed and manufactured by X10 for Radio Shack, Phillips Consumer Electronics, (Magnavox) and the X10 Powerhouse brand.
Speaking of X10’s future prospects, Rye says the format “will last forever. It is the de facto standard for home automation and is used by IBM, RCA, GE, Microsoft, Radio Shack, Magnavox, Leviton, and in fact just about everyone in the HA business.” However, over the years, there have been several attempts at replacing it. Two of these are CEBus, (Consumer Electronics Bus - the) which was introduced in 1984, In 1991, the Lonworks System was introduced. Both attempted to improve the reliability of the X10 system, but neither has (yet) caught on, on the mass scale that X10 has. Helen Heneveld, a home automation industry consultant with the Training Dept. (, which provides training products to the industry says, “In the early 1990s, the consumer mix fell into two categories, the ultra-high-end, with systems of $100,000 and up, and the mass market, with systems of $2,000 and $35,000. What actually happened was moderate acceptance of CEBUS in the high market, and virtually no acceptance by the mass market.” In other words, while X10 isn’t perfect, it’s still the only modular system that can be bought on a low budget at Radio Shack, Home Depot, Micro Center, and other stores. And that ability to get started cheaply, for a homeowner to get their feet wet with home automation, is a very good thing.

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