The internet’s first thing – John Romkey’s ‘smart’ toaster

Jeff Elder 3 Sep 2019

He knew it was ridiculous – but also realized putting devices online was opening up a whole new world

In 1990, there were 3 million people on the internet. (Today there are 1,000 times that many.) And while there were experiments – such as a “wired” soda machine at Carnegie Mellon University – there were no smart devices online, at least not as we think of them today. It was an internet of no things. (Today there are 7 billion – not including computers and mobile devices.)

This is the story of the internet’s first thing, its secret enemies, its precious limited resources, and its long-term legacy. This is the story of John Romkey and the Sunbeam Deluxe Automatic Radiant Control toaster, the internet’s first thing. 

“It was ridiculous,” says Romkey, an internet pioneer who co-authored the first set of communications protocols allowing IBM computers to connect to the early internet in 1982. “That’s one reason we did it.” But there were serious reasons, too. The early Internet of Things has come into historical focus this summer with TOP SECRET, an exhibit at the London Science Museum now featuring cybersecurity and tech history.

“It just goes to show people have always enjoyed putting ridiculous things on the internet.”

Romkey founded FTP Software in 1986, and his company built an early implementation of the internet protocol stack, TCP/IP. At a 1989 computer trade show called Interop, organizer Dan Lynch challenged him to put a device online and demonstrate it at the next year’s show. Romkey accepted the challenge. “I wanted to show what you could do with existing protocols,” says Romkey, who today consults and performs IoT research. 

They happened to pick the perfect device. The Sunbeam Deluxe Automatic Radiant Control – which Romkey still owns – was a clever device even before it was a “smart” device. “When you put bread into it, it would automatically lower the bread and begin toasting,” Romkey says. So all we had to do was control power to the toaster using a big, clunky notebook computer and wire them together. Remember, there was no Wi-Fi. Then we could use the computer to turn on the power to lower and toast the bread, and turn off the power to stop the toasting and raise the bread.”

Little did Romkey know there were opposing forces determined to shut his brave little toaster down. The internet’s first thing was barely warming up, and it looked like it might already be toast. “The union working the trade show in the facility was really upset because we weren’t allowed to prepare food. That was in the contract,” Romkey says. “Even though no one was eating it, we were breaking the rules.” 

But no one told Romkey about the threat. The team just told him they had to keep using the same two pieces of bread – a compromise they worked out with the union. “All I knew was, we had to switch to very light toasting,” he says. 

What was the reception from the 1990 Interop crowd in San Jose, Calif.? “People were amused,” Romkey says. “They liked it. They thought it was interesting.” But few grasped issues he thought popped up in his toaster demo. “Privacy and security were on my mind,” Romkey says. “Who can see your toaster online, who can control your toaster online?” The toaster is such a minimal device – even the Sunbeam Deluxe Automatic Radiant Control toaster – that data wasn’t an issue unless you were concerned about others knowing how much toast you were making. But what if someone could turn your toaster on for 10 hours while you were away from home?

The toaster did not happen in a vacuum. (Those would come later.) Romkey’s friend and colleague Simon Hackett also demo’d a smart toaster at Interop and elsewhere. The next year a different team built a robot arm to put bread in their own smart toaster. The Internet of Things, plural, was on its way. 

How does Romkey feel about the IoT? “I have mixed feelings,” he says. “There are such wonderful possibilities for science, medicine, the environment, and just everyday convenience. And there are such nightmarish science fiction scenarios, particularly around security vulnerabilities that are epidemic in the IoT.”  

In the end, the IoT’s first thing pioneered an enduring truth about smart devices, Romkey believes:

“It just goes to show people have always enjoyed putting ridiculous things on the internet.”

Top Secret is an exhibit co-sponsored by Avast at the Science Museum in London until February. Admission to Top Secret is free (booking is required). Further details and information can be found here.

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