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Who is the Father of Home Automation?

Home automation is about 30 years old: what single person really kicked it off?


Frox inventor: NOT the father of home automation

As part of our 20-year anniversary of CE Pro, and our celebration of the 20 most influential people in custom electronics, we posed this question: Who is the father of home automation?

The question got lost in a sidebar, so here’s your chance to weigh in.

Let’s hear from the oldtimers. Do any of these innovators fit the bill? Anyone else you might pick?

Tom Riley, Unity Systems: Pioneer of touchscreen-based home automation with the Unity System, still in operation in many homes today after more than two decades; leader in utility demand side management.

George Feldstein, Crestron: Popularized touchscreen-based home control and invested heavily in the category.

Scott Miller,
AMX: Innovator in home control, and one of the most colorful personalities in the business; emphasized extreme customer service.

Bob Farinelli
, Elan Home Systems: Visionary founder and accomplished engineer who was one of the first to invest heavily in high-end home control.

Jay McLellan, Home Automation Inc. (HAI): Purveyor of the first integrated security and home automation system, with possibly the most installs of any home automation vendor.

Peter Lesser
, X10: Brought home automation to the masses with low-priced, easy-to-install powerline based products; inspired better solutions such as UPB, Insteon and Z-Wave.

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Article Topics

Blogs · Home Automation and Control · Control Systems · 20 Years · All topics

About the Author

Julie Jacobson, Co-Founder, EH Publishing / Editor-at-large, CE Pro
Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson. [More by Julie Jacobson]

16 Comments (displayed in order by date/time)

Posted by Security Guy  on  02/05  at  03:39 PM

Tom Riley is the guy.  Tom founded Unity Systems one of the first real automation systems many of which are still running almost 30 years later.  He then became a leader in energy and demand side management.  Oh yeah, after leaving this industry he became the U.S. ambassador to Morocco.  Not bad for a geek.

Posted by lbaltz  on  02/05  at  06:54 PM

Reuel Lawney from Custom Command Systems deserves at the least an honorable mention.  Check out this video from 1990.  Their product was available in the late 80s and let you drag & drop audio sources into rooms on a touch screen; it was all floor plan driven. I installed a system in 1990 and it worked!  There were Mitsubishi 13” CRTs in walls and an IBM XT computer as the brain…I think we pulled over 10 miles of cable.

Posted by Paul Collins  on  02/05  at  11:56 PM

Steve Abadi, inventor of StereMote. Steve was from Lawrence, Long Island.  I represented his product in 1979 while working for Allan Wem of Audio Merchandisers Associates [AMA].

It was the first multiroom, multisource system capable of nine rooms.

Posted by Doug Ford  on  02/06  at  12:06 PM

you aren’t old enough to know and your dates are way off.  Aspects of ‘home automation’ have existed since at least 1946.  In the 1950’s some of the Frank Lloyd Wright homes had Touch-Plate and a variety of other items.  I still own a non-installed Drape-O-Matic by GE from 1963 stored away in my biz attic.  In 1958 the final FLW project included buttons mounted in stone, above the fireplace and in the steps.  It had a button on one side of the bed to call the police, it had a button on the other side to call the fire dept.  Scott Miller and Peter York were great influencers but they didn’t start it.  The BSR patents for X-10 stuff dated to 1975.  Litetouch was very influential in growing the high end market.  It is really wrong to try to give it to one guy.  But if you insist it should go to Lloyd Hallamore.

Posted by Dan Christians - Audio Plus  on  02/06  at  12:13 PM

Chris Stevens with Audio Access (Phoenix Systems) should be in consideration as well as Gus Searly and his ‘Butler in a Box’.
Personally, I still run into Audio Access and Unity Systems (anyone still program in DOS?) that are still operational.

Posted by Julie Jacobson  on  02/06  at  12:15 PM

lbaltz ... of course! Totally forgot about Custom Command. Doug ... good to hear from you. Naturally HA has been around way longer than 30 years but we didn’t start the timer with the first patent or first product but when it really started to get some traction.

Posted by Peter Lazarus  on  02/06  at  12:20 PM

Let’s not forget Chris Stevens and Audioaccess?

Posted by Julie Jacobson  on  02/06  at  12:20 PM

Ah, Gus Searcy ... I actually googled him a few days ago and he’s involved in some crazy murder trial right now.

Posted by Kevin Sparks  on  02/06  at  12:31 PM

George Feldstein, Crestron.  No doubt, while all the others made significant contributions to automation, Feldstein is the father.  His ideas and his company have personified automation around the world.  (no I do not, nor have I ever been employed by Crestron)

Posted by Michael Block  on  02/06  at  03:11 PM

Drew Alan Kaplan - DAK Enterprises encouraged me, like a father, to explore the possibilities and push the boundaries.  He made it fun and cheap to make cool stuff work before there was a name for it.  My bedroom growing up was full of his toys, especially X10, that automated our pool lights and every haunted house we did.

Posted by Eric Davidson  on  02/07  at  06:29 AM

Here are some other notables from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s who commercialized home automation systems.

Pete Lesser, Dave Rye, plus X-10’s Scottish owner. (mid 70’s)

Roy Mason - futurist, designer of Xanadu, an automated dome house, founder of the Home Automation Association (early 80’s)

Tim Shoekle (sp?) - inventor and founder of Cyberhome. (early 80’s)

Marty Burns - inventor and founder of Hypertek. (early 80’s)

Bob Russ - inventor and founder of Unity Systems.  (early 80’s)

Gus Searcy - inventor and founder of Butler in a Box (early 80’s)

Touchplate an early control system that predated LiteTouch and Vantage. 

Crestron and AMX were controlling slide projectors in the early 80’s. 

Bolton was selling automated multi-room audio systems on Madison Avenue in NYC in the mid-70’s.

Posted by Yves Richarz  on  02/07  at  06:56 PM

Lets not forget to include Michael Stein and his “Media Magician”. He developed the first (as far as I know) fully working graphic GUI that was genlocked over video on TV. While primarily used for the control of Home Theaters, it was capable of controlling other items as well. I remember an article on its use as a Whole House controller for a handicapped client who was wheel chair bound.

Posted by Andre Ramos  on  02/09  at  12:16 AM

I think Steve Wozniak is the one. He predicted (and worked on it) a lot of home automation, back in the 80’s.

Posted by Rick Schuett  on  02/15  at  04:19 PM

The Frox guy….  Mr. Frox

Seriously, it depends on how you define “Father”. Many of the people mentioned earlier may have been involved in automating something, but Tom Riley had a real company that had real installations early on, and Jay McLellan ran the only automation-centric company that still is around from the very old days. Scott and George weren’t focused on home controls in the early 90’s. Peter Lessor had the hardware that enabled home control but X-10 really didn’t sell software and controllers which is the heart of any automation system.

Chris Stevens is truly a pioneer in the CI industry but in the early 90’s Helma Paulson was in charge of sales and they were only in the multi-room audio business, which I don’t consider “automation” by itself.

Bob Farinelli - similar to Chris in that Elan started out as a multi-room audio system and stayed that way for quite a while until they later branched out.

My vote goes to Tom and Jay (tie).

Posted by Julie Jacobson  on  02/16  at  03:11 AM

Rick ... My thoughts exactly. Doesn’t matter who filed patents or who invented stuff. What matters is who drove this industry. I agree with your assessment but I wouldn’t diminish x10’s contribution. Without x10, HAI wouldn’t be here, nor would the enthusiasts that had a huge impact on our industry. Many, if not most, of the HA movers and shakers have roots in X10.

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