How Kevin Ashton named The Internet of Things

Jeff Elder 20 Aug 2019

20 years ago a computer scientist in London needed a title for a slide deck – and came up with a name that stuck

Twenty years ago, Kevin Ashton sat in his cubicle at Procter & Gamble’s research and development offices in Egham, Surrey, just 17 miles from the London Science Museum now featuring cybersecurity and tech history in the exhibit Top Secret. On the screen of his IBM ThinkPad laptop was a PowerPoint presentation. It needed a name. 

For six months the 30-year-old computer scientist had tried to persuade P&G to put radio frequency identification tags and other sensors on products in the supply chain. The tags and sensors would generate data about where the products were, whether they’d been scanned in a warehouse, or placed on a shelf, or sold. 

The name of the presentation could influence whether the project moved forward. He needed it to pop.

“I knew I wanted to get the word ‘internet’ into it, because then I could get some buy-in," says Ashton (pictured above today). "All these old, white-guy CEO types were very excited about the internet, but at that time it was still just the dot .com revolution. It was all websites. For most people the internet was still dial-up. The Internet was something you got on via CDs from AOL.” (The online community America Online gave away compact discs that users could insert in their computers to upload software and join that network.)  

“No one was talking about the Internet of anything.” 

“People were using the phrase ‘smart packaging,’ but I was getting bored with that,” says Ashton, cofounder of the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the new book “How To Fly A Horse.”  

“I was talking about the supply chain being a ‘Network of Things,’ and the Internet being a ‘Network of Bits,’ and how sensor technology would merge the two together.  Then I thought of an ‘Internet of Things,’ and I thought, ‘That’ll do – or maybe even better.’ It had a ring to it. It became the title of the presentation.” 

"Then I thought of an ‘Internet of Things,’ and I thought, ‘That’ll do – or maybe even better.’ It had a ring to it. It became the title of the presentation.” – Kevin Ashton, on how he named The Internet of Things

He went into a meeting with a dozen executives from the razor company Gillette, who were interested in partnering with P&G on the sensor project. (P&G later acquired Gillette, but in the 1990s, they were separate companies.) He called up the presentation and what would become a world-famous phrase greeted his audience: 

The Internet of Things

And it was met with… crickets. 

“They liked it. It went over well. But fireworks didn’t light up the sky. Time did not stand still. We had the meeting and then we all went out to dinner on King’s Road in Chelsea. Life went on.”

But the slide deck did the trick. “That meeting got me a meeting with a senior executive at Gillette in Boston, and they agreed to fund my research at MIT.” So the title lived on, and Ashton relocated to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he co-founded and led the Auto-ID Center – the research lab that helped build the foundation of the Internet of Things.

“I just kept using the presentation.”

The phrase did not become immediately ubiquitous. “For five years or so no one was using the term. From 1999-2005 it barely appeared. The idea of having data in what we now call the cloud was very new.”

Then, in 2008-2009, the phrase took on a life of its own. This was partly because the Internet of Things was developing and growing far beyond a small community of expert computer scientists, and perhaps also for an odd reason. In his book Ashton writes about the accidents that often contribute to innovation. Internet of Things became a sticky phrase, he believes, partly for just such a strange and nearly forgotten accident. 

Twitter blew up, growing more than 750% in 2008 to reach 5 million monthly visitors. The obvious acronym for the Internet of Things, “IoT,” was a short three letters that few people were using for anything else. Twitter users needed a short way to talk about the Internet of Things, so many started using the hashtag #IoT. “We never called it the IoT in the early years,” Ashton says. “But looking back on it, one of the accidents that helped make ‘Internet of Things’ a catchphrase was the acronym IoT, which was unusual and really began popping up as a Twitter hashtag.” Twitter search confirms this. From a trickle in 2008 to steady use in 2009 to verified users and publishers in 2010, #IoT grew into a common Twitter topic.  

Today the Internet of Things has become such a part of the language that other people occasionally try to explain it to Ashton. At one point a Los Angeles executive attempted to explain the IoT to him and a group of people who knew he coined the phrase. “And he got it all wrong. I tried to gently correct him, but he mansplained right over me.” 

Ashton is known as “the father of the Internet of Things” – the Londoner who named a computer revolution from a cubicle – but he remains humble about his place in history. “You know,” he confides. “It would have made more sense grammatically if it was ‘The Internet For Things.’”

Too late now. It’ll do – maybe even better.

Top Secret is an exhibition at the Science Museum in London from 10th July 2019 to 23rd February 2020. Admission to Top Secret is free (booking is required). Further details and information can be found here.

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