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Memory Lane - Broadband’s latest wrinkle

Mon, 02/04/2013 - 12:54pm
Stewart Schley, media and technology writer

Some ops anticipate hundreds of home IP devices in the future.

Stewart SchleyAt the start of the 20th century, life for many Americans was conducted in accepted symmetry, with common household tasks aligned by days. Mondays, for example, were for washing clothes – anybody could tell you that. The following day was devoted to a slavish battle known as “ironing,” a term owing to the cast iron flat boxes, heated by fire or charcoal, that homemakers used to smooth out clothes.

It was the Tuesday ritual that posed a tricky problem for Earl Richardson.

Richardson was the plant superintendent for the Ontario Power Co. in Southern California. Among his responsibilities was reading meters – traveling from house to house to record how much electricity people used. His destiny, it seems, was tightly tied to his occupation because Richardson, having spent his days watching the budding phenomenon of electrical household power take shape right before his eyes, realized new possibilities were being sparked. At home, he worked to produce a new type of clothes iron, powered by electrical current. His breakthrough, inspired by a suggestion from his wife, was to channel the heat toward the iron’s frontward tip so that pesky wrinkles around buttonholes and pleats could be vanquished. It was a clever improvement on the original electric iron conceived by a New York inventor, Henry Seeley, in 1882. People loved it.

The problem had to do with the Tuesday ironing ritual. Women commonly devoted the better part of the day to ironing clothes. Electricity, though, was available only during the evening for powering the household lamps that were the main reason people wanted electric current in the first place. Richardson attacked the problem by effecting an alliance with the local utility that employed him: Turn the power on during the day, he suggested, and people will use and pay for more electricity. And I’ll sell some irons.

The managers of the Ontario Power Co. agreed, and Richardson’s “hot point” iron, named for its concentric heating approach, became a hit. Its popularity on the consumer market, beginning in 1905, contributed to a series of corporate transactions that ultimately would combine Richardson’s Hotpoint Electric Heating Co. with General Electric. More important, Richardson’s success inspired manufacturers to create labor-saving household appliances powered by electricity and marketed to a consumer segment – housewives – that would appreciate their benefit.

By the 1920s, these appliances proliferated. There were electric clothes-washing machines, toasters, vacuums, fans, refrigerators, and even a cream-separating machine. The propaganda was thick, and sometimes earnest. Electricity pioneer Thomas Edison promised that from now on, the typical homemaker would be “a domestic engineer than a domestic laborer, with the greatest of handmaidens, electricity, at her service.”

Electric utilities, eager to sell more kilowatts, were willing partners. The electrical power industry’s trade association, the National Electric Light Association, created a Women’s Committee to provide guidance and cultivate favor with the major consumer cohort of the day. By 1929, it was common to find seven to 11 electric appliances in U.S. homes, according to a writer for the magazine National Safety News.

A similar sort of appliance proliferation is now occurring in the modern home, with broadband connections to the Internet substituting for electrical power in the analogy. Today, the average U.S. home has 5.5 IP-connected devices, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index forecast. But service providers are readying for a flood of new IP appliances that will make that ratio seem quaint. Cisco thinks the number will rise to 8.5 by 2016, and some cable companies anticipate seeing hundreds of home IP devices in the future as the so-called “Internet of Things” greatly expands the number of devices that speak IP.

Like Richardson before them, IP device manufacturers see logical partners in the service provider realm. Samsung, for one example, has teamed with Comcast and Time Warner Cable to integrate tablets and connected TV sets with broadband video applications the ops deliver. Makers of home automation and healthcare monitoring devices are following, promising to dangle dozens of sensors across the home IP network through product pairings with broadband providers.

This manufacturer-meets-ISP pairing coincides with a movement toward usage-based pricing that borrows from an electrical utility model of the early 1900s. Today’s megabits are yesterday’s kilowatts, and like power companies before them, service providers appreciate the symbiotic relationship that device makers can deliver. Already it’s possible to purchase and install a broadband-connected refrigerator and washing machine. If somebody can invent an Internet-controlled iron, the circle will be complete.

Email: stewart@stewartschley.com

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