The 2010s ushered in the modern age of smart home technology, complete with affordable voice assistants, design-forward thermostats that adjust for you and robot vacuums you control from your phone.
But smart home products existed long before the 21st century.
Let’s travel back in time to acknowledge the early tech that inspired today’s smart home innovations. While they weren’t called “smart home” products and they didn’t sit in a designated section on store shelves, they shared the same core goal as the 2020 smart home: to make daily life easier.
Here I’ll highlight eight devices that were important precursors to the smart home industry of today. This isn’t an exhaustive list. Instead it focuses on products that both provided a bridge to newer technologies and continue to be sold today themselves. Weigh in with your own pre-smart-home-smart-home products in the comments section.
Read more: The smart home wouldn’t exist without this 90s invention
Ah, the humble thermostat. Thermostats were first introduced way back in the late 1800s, but programmable thermostats are a newer invention that are still common today. They expanded on the idea of traditional thermostats you had to adjust manually by adding a degree of customizability and automation. Programmable thermostats save time and, when used correctly, can save you money too.
Specifically, programmable thermostats allow you to set a custom heating and cooling schedule for your home that runs automatically. There are a variety of types of programmable models within this category, all related to how much control they give you over your schedule.
Thermostats with a “1-week” program type give you just enough control to set one recurring schedule for the entire week. “5-2” programmable thermostats let you designate a Monday through Friday schedule and a separate weekend schedule. “5-1-1” thermostats provide a little more customizability, with one Monday through Friday schedule and separate schedules for Saturday and Sunday. “7-day” programmable thermostats are the most flexible, giving you the ability to set a different schedule for every day of the week.
Read more: Thermostats used to be ugly. Nest changed all that (commentary)
Traditional programmable thermostats didn’t work with an app on your phone. Instead, you had to physically stand at your thermostat and set the schedule by pressing buttons or selection options on a touchscreen display. Many basic programmable models still work like that today.
Smart thermostats are the next-gen version of traditional programmable thermostats. Smart models, like the Nest Learning Thermostat, are programmable, but also add in many advanced features that give users even more flexibility and control, like support for voice assistants and, of course, the ability to adjust the temperature or change a setting from your phone.
Regardless of the innovations made since, programmable thermostats were quite a feat when they were first introduced. Basic non-smart models continue to be sold in hardware stores and online retailers.
Read more: The best smart thermostats of 2020
“Set it and forget it” is a common phrase associated with slow cookers, due to their much-appreciated ability to save people time in the kitchen. First introduced in the 1950s, slow cookers are simple by design and continue to be a popular time-saving cooking staple today. Here’s the gist: toss a bunch of stuff in the slow cooker and roughly four to eight hours later, depending on the settings you use and what you’re making, you have chili, or enchilada filling, or pulled pork, among lots of other possibilities.
Sure, you have to put the food in the cooker, plug it in and press a couple buttons to get it started — but the slow cooker handles the rest.
There are countless recipes to follow that yield delicious results with deliberately minimal effort on your part. And, unlike ovens and other cooking appliances, you can safely leave home while your slow cooker keeps on cooking at a low, steady temperature. Most models — even the simplest ones — have timers that automatically switch over to warming your food when they’re done cooking.
10 easy and delicious slow-cooker recipes for your next party
Read more: From humble to high-tech, a slow cooker history
Modern kitchen appliances have advanced a lot since the 1950s, from countertop ovens with tech that recognizes the shape of the food you’re cooking, picking the best time and temperature settings automatically, to multicookers like the Instant Pot that can pressure cook, slow cook, sear and more.
That said, slow cookers continue to be a favorite for pot luck dinners, Super Bowl parties and other events, because they’re easy to transport and serve from. Some models even have locking lids for the express purpose of securing the lid while you drive. Even right now, during quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve made use of my slow cooker more than once.
Read more: The best Instant Pots of 2020
If you want more control over watering your yard, a built-in zoned sprinkler system is a nice upgrade that’s been around for decades.
Unlike the standard sprinklers you place on top of your grass and turn on and off manually, an irrigation system does the heavy lifting for you. The exact set up can vary based on your yard but here’s the gist: a sprinkler company installs sprinkler heads in your grass and an irrigation, or sprinkler controller, in your garage or somewhere outside you can access easily.
Sections of the yard are assigned different zones and you can schedule your sprinklers to turn on and off at set times from the controller — then leave it alone the rest of the season to do its thing.
Read more: 6 reasons you need a smart sprinkler
Those sprinkler controllers are still widely available today, but newer smart sprinkler controllers, like Rachio or Orbit B-Hyve, take the automation up a level or two. For starters, you can set your sprinkler schedules from an app — and the controller can tune into your local weather forecast and automatically override a schedule if it’s going to rain.
Outlet timers, like the one pictured above on the left, are just old-school smart plugs. They plug into wall outlets and have their own integrated outlets so you can connect holiday lights, lamps and other electronics for customizable control. Traditional outlet timers have radial dials that give you a basic level of on-off automation within the confines of the timer’s available settings.
Outlet timers add convenience, so you can set the timer to turn your holiday lights on at 7pm and off at 11pm without having to do anything. But they can also be used as security devices if you create a semi-randomized on/off schedule for an indoor lamp to make it seem like you’re home when you aren’t.
It’s a simple concept, but these handy devices are still sold in hardware stores today. Given that they typically cost less than $20, they’re an affordable way to automate your home.
Read more: The best smart plugs of 2020
Smart plugs do the exact same thing, just with a more streamlined interface. The plugs themselves, like the Belkin model pictured above right, have minimal designs and no radial dials at all. Instead, you create your on/off automations and adjust settings on your phone. Use an app to set various on/off schedules to suit your needs and let the devices handle the rest.
Smart plugs usually connect to Wi-Fi and have more scheduling options, but a standard analog timer still gets the job done fine.
Read more: How to set up our favorite smart plug
The first retail-ready robot vacuum, the Electrolux Trilobite, hit stores in 2001. The idea was simple: let a roving bot clean your floors for you. It runs on batteries, roams around collecting dust and other debris, then returns to its charging station when it’s done. Remove the dust bin to empty it as needed and return the bin before it takes another run around your house.
All of that is still true today, but a lot has changed in robot vacuum-land, too.
Mainly, many of today’s robot vacuums have apps. The apps do everything from allowing remote scheduling to handing the controls over to you so you can maneuver your bot yourself from your phone. Some robot vacuums even work with voice assistants so you can ask Alexa or Google Assistant to start your autonomous floor cleaner for you.
Other models have additional features, like mopping. Some even claim to be self-cleaning. Regardless, all robot vacuums share the same common goal of trying to save you time cleaning your floors so you don’t have to. The robot vacuums we’ve tested haven’t yet reached the stage where they can take over all of your floor cleaning needs, but the best models do a solid interim clean to tide you over for several days.
Read more: The best robot vacuums of 2020
Traditional alarm clocks, some of which are still sold today, perform one simple, useful automation: They wake you up via a preset timer. They don’t have built-in phone docks or act as Bluetooth speakers and they don’t have any other multitasking features that define some of the fancier alarm clocks available today. Instead, they were — and still are — basic by design.
There’s nothing wrong with basic devices that perform one task reliably well — in fact, I wrote a whole commentary in defense of the old-school alarm clock. Here’s an excerpt from that commentary:
Like any self-respecting tech writer, I completely ignore the suggestions against using my phone right before bed.
I’ve read about the negative effects of screens, and most nights, I just don’t care. I’d rather watch something on YouTube — or message with my friend 13 hours ahead in Japan than tuck my phone away in a corner for time-out.
But there’s a problem. Because I use my phone for nearly everything, I can’t use it as my alarm clock — even though it regularly winds up in bed with me.
Traditional alarm clocks also paved the way for all of those newer, multi-faceted alarm clocks and even smart speakers and displays that have alarm functions. In fact, our current favorite alarm clock is the Amazon Echo Show 5 smart display.
Read more: The best alarm clocks of 2020
X10 is a protocol that was developed in the 70s. It uses radio frequencies to control and, in some cases automate, the dumb electronic devices in your home. X10 products are still sold today, but have been largely replaced in stores by smart plugs, smart in-wall dimmers and other app-enabled gadgets.
Similar to the outlet timer I talked about above, X10 devices plug into outlets. They range from lamp modules to appliance models — and even universal modules. Use them to turn your lamp, TV, or other small electronic device on or off from an X10-compatible remote. Some X10 devices even give you the option to set timers and scheduled scenes in advance.
While somewhat limited — X10 lamp modules, for instance, are optimized for incandescent bulbs rather than LEDs — they’re an affordable option if you want to automate your home electronics without a phone app.
Traditional closed-circuit television cameras are still common today. The camera’s security footage is typically recorded on digital video recorders (DVR) or network video recorders (NVR). DVR systems connect over coaxial cables to analog security cameras, whereas NVR systems connect to digital security cameras (often called IP cameras) through an ethernet cable or wirelessly over Wi-Fi.
Once installed, your camera will automatically send footage to your DVR or NVR, allowing you to monitor your home or business without having to keep watch yourself.
Most of the security cameras I test today have optional cloud storage services and aren’t compatible with the DVR/NDR systems. Instead, you pay a monthly or yearly fee for a remote server to store your footage for you. Companies like Nest, Ring and Arlo all operate on the cloud storage concept. You don’t have to use their cloud services, but you won’t have access to saved footage otherwise. You can view cloud footage on your phone, as well as receive motion alerts in near real-time.
Some security cameras with cloud services also offer local storage through built-in microSD card slots. This option allows you to skip the remote server portion of your video storage and still get alerts, view the live video feed and adjust your settings from your phone.
But CCTV systems are still around, giving you the option to keep things simple and manage your system entirely yourself without having to enlist a phone to access your feed or settings.
To the smart home and beyond
There are countless other devices that pre-date the modern smart home that also tackled simple home automations. But programmable thermostats, slow cookers, sprinkler controllers, outlet timers, robot vacuums, alarm clocks, X10 devices and CCTV cameras immediately came to my mind.
All eight came before (in some cases, long before) today’s smart home but deserve recognition as home automation devices in their own right. And they helped inspire other, newer devices to emerge that built on that basic automation. Have other examples? Share them in the comment section below.