I was curious what the first non-traditional-computer objects were that were connected to a computer network. (A telegraph is probably the first device connected to any kind of network.) To be technical: a non-computer yet packet switched network device with continuous or frequent connectivity to said network.) Here’s some I found, stretching back 40 years.
Interface Message Processor (1969)
“The packet-switching node used to interconnect participant networks to the ARPANET from the late 1960s to 1989. It was the first generation of gateways, which are known today as routers.”
The “Prancing Pony Cooperative” Vending Machine (early-mid 1970s)
“A computer-controlled vending machine…it used to be directly connected to the SAIL DEC-20 mainframe, but when SAIL was retired, it was defunct for a while, and it’s now connected to the UNIX box that replaced SAIL. It’s basically a payment system; if you have an account, you can buy things and charge them to your account. The machine has an early-model laptop attached to the front (replacing a Teletype KSR-35) for this purpose.”
The CMU CS Department Coke Machine (mid-1970s)
“They installed micro-switches in the Coke machine to sense how many bottles were present in each of its six columns of bottles. The switches were hooked up to CMUA, the PDP-10 that was then the main departmental computer. A server program was written to keep tabs on the Coke machine’s state, including how long each bottle had been in the machine.”
Argos Seabeacon Buoys (1980s)
“It was originally intended as a scientific tool for collecting and relaying meteorological and oceanographic data, but with its location tracking properties, scientists quickly realised it could do much more. ‘It all started with a huge programme where 200 drifting buoys were deployed around the Antarctic Ocean,’ explained Mr Ortega. ‘The idea was to collect data – atmospheric pressure and sea surface temperature – from the buoys and to locate them. But at the same time, the buoys were drifting, and because Argos could locate their positions, the scientists also found out they could start to compute the direction and the speeds of the currents.’”
The Internet Toaster (1990)
“The toaster…had one control, to turn the power on, and the darkness of the toast was controlled by how long the power was kept on. However, a human being still had to insert the bread. [In] 1991…a small robotic crane was added to the system, also controlled from the Internet, which picked up a slice of bread and dropped it into the toaster, automating the system from end-to-end.”
The Trojan Room Coffee Pot (1991)
“In the Trojan Room there were several racks of simple computers used in the testing of our networks. One of these had a video frame-grabber attached and was not being used at the time. We fixed a camera to a retort stand, pointed it at the coffee machine in the corridor, and ran the wires under the floor to the frame-grabber in the Trojan Room. Paul Jardetzky…wrote a ‘server’ program, which ran on that machine and captured images of the pot every few seconds at various resolutions, and I wrote a ‘client’ program which everybody could run, which connected to the server and displayed an icon-sized image of the pot in the corner of the screen. The image was only updated about three times a minute, but that was fine because the pot filled rather slowly, and it was only greyscale, which was also fine, because so was the coffee.”
Live Wire/Dangling String (1995)
“An 8 foot piece of plastic spaghetti that hangs from a small electric motor mounted in the ceiling. The motor is electrically connected to a nearby Ethernet cable, so that each bit of information that goes past causes a tiny twitch of the motor. A very busy network causes a madly whirling string with a characteristic noise; a quiet network causes only a small twitch every few seconds. Placed in an unused corner of a hallway, the long string is visible and audible from many offices without being obtrusive. It is fun and useful. The Dangling String meets a key challenge in technology design for the next decade: how to create calm technology.”
The Telegarden (1995)
“An art installation that allowed web users to view and interact with a remote garden filled with living plants. Members could plant, water, and monitor the progress of seedlings via the tender movements of an industrial robot arm.”
Drive Me Insane (1997)
“This is a website. Specifically, it’s a website where you can turn lights on and off, and watch it happen via a webcam.”
Icepick Internet Fridge (1998)
Also toilet (1998), doorbell (1998), and mailbox (2000).
Any more? I’m particularly looking for any from the 1980s, especially a rumored “MIT door lock” project and some elevators (MIT?) that were networked (1970s? 80s?).
Thanks to Mike Kuniavsky, Scott Berkun, Bill Buxton, Ianus Keller, and Thor Muller for help!