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
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.
(www.trainingdept.com), 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.