The History of Home Security—From Telegraphs to Smart Homes
security systems have taken a huge technological leap from very humble origins
Thick walls, sturdy doors, a large field of view, good lighting, and perhaps a guard dog. Whether you have a cabin, a castle, or a three-bedroom mid-century house, many of the basics of home security haven’t changed much over the years.
People have been putting bars across doors almost as long as they’ve been putting doors on houses. The first known mechanical lock, which was made entirely of wood, was used in ancient Assyria perhaps as early as 4,000 years ago. But subsequent advances in home security technology over the millennia have been amazing. Now, you can lock and unlock your door from across the globe with your smartphone.
The history of technology is one of progressive development. Ideas are shared, borrowed, and stolen. Technology is improved upon and repurposed. And the modern history of home security systems is the story of how intrusion detection, cinematography, and other technologies were developed and combined with telecommunication to protect homes.
It involves strange vanishings, stolen credit, war innovation, and more. In this article, we highlight the way that these events and the inventions of core technologies shaped the history of home security.
telegraphs, and the history of intrusion detection
Intrusion detection (so-called "burglar alarms") works much the same way now as they did in the past: when a signal indicating an unauthorized entry is detected, an alert is sounded and potentially transmitted. The development of modern intrusion detection depended on two things: improvements in transmission technology and advancements in what can be detected.
Pope invents, Holmes implements
In 1853, Rev. Augustus Russell Pope was granted a patent for a simple but ingenious battery-powered burglar alarm. When the device was armed, opening a window or door would complete an electric circuit. The flow of electricity caused a magnet to vibrate and that vibration rang a bell with a hammer. Perhaps the cleverest feature of Pope’s invention was that closing the window or door would not silence the alarm. This remains a feature in modern alarm systems; alarms can only be turned off via a specific command.
Pope was a great inventor but it took the business strategy of Edwin Holmes, who bought the patent in 1857, to make the idea commercially successful. Holmes quickly found that people in his native Boston felt safe and were skeptical of alarms, so he sought a better market. In a biography of his father, Holmes’ son writes: “Mr. Holmes quickly made up his mind that all the burglars there were in the country were in New York, and so decided to bring his family here, which he did in 1859….”
Holmes did indeed find customers for his device. In addition to burglary, New Yorkers were apparently just as concerned about a nighttime assassination, so Holmes played to both concerns. He published a pamphlet titled “A Treatise Upon the Best Method of Protecting Property From Burglars, and Human Life From Midnight Assassins.” He also worked to make people more comfortable with the concept of an alarm in the home. Whenever he earned a prominent customer, he published their testimonial, including these:
“I have had Holmes’ Burglar Alarm Telegraph in my house three years. Three attempts at robbery have been made within that period, each of which would have been successful had it not been for this Alarm. I would not be without it one month for a thousand dollars. It is impossible to raise a window or open a door from the outside, after the Alarm is set, without awakening every inmate of my house,” — P. T. Barnum, 1866.
“Mr. Holmes—My Dear Sir:—Since you put into my house your Yankee Telegraph for detecting thieves, I have been twice visited by burglars, who, in both instances, heard the Alarm Bell and thereupon made so sudden a retreat that it was vain to send after them either a pistol shot or a policeman. And I hope, sir, that you will fix one of the bells to the United States Treasury, to give warning of the approach of all the harpies.” — Theodore Tilton, 1868.
Holmes also took Pope’s burglar alarm patent beyond just audible alarms, implementing the first monitored home security system. When a signal was received by a monitoring center, the authorities were dispatched. Initially, each residential system communicated with a central monitoring office (the first was at the top of a tower in NYC) with telegraph lines laid for that purpose. This rather cumbersome system was soon improved upon by his son, Edwin Thomas Holmes, who negotiated the rights to use existing telephone lines for this purpose.
Calahan builds infrastructure for widespread
Edwin Holmes introduced the world to monitored security systems and intrusion alarms. But Edward Calahan, who invented the telegraph stock ticker in 1867, developed the monitoring infrastructure to support them.
Calahan initially worked in New York City, which he divided into districts that each had a central monitoring station. When his home alarm systems or emergency call boxes were triggered, they sent a telegraph signal to their district monitoring station and a messenger there could quickly summon help. In 1871, he founded American District Telegraph and experienced great success, expanding to offices in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago by 1875.
Nazi rockets, and the history of video surveillance
The use of video surveillance in home security systems begins with the development of cinematography. After reliable video transition and storage became possible, video surveillance became possible. Still more improvements were made with the advent of digital video, the internet, and wireless technology.
The early days of video
Several inventors can take credit for motion pictures. In 1888, French inventor Louis Le Prince patented a camera that could take 16 images per second. He captured the first motion picture in Leeds, England that same year and developed a system for displaying it. But in 1890, while preparing to exhibit his motion picture system, Le Prince disappeared without a trace after boarding a train from Dijon to Paris.
Thomas Edison, who had directed his employee William Dickson to begin work on a motion picture device in 1889, wrested the credit away from Le Prince after his disappearance. In 1895, the Lumiere brothers dazzled Paris with projected motion pictures; Edison unveiled his projections in New York in 1896. Le Prince predated them both.
As film historian Glenn Myrent wrote in The New York Times:
“The lone inventor Augustin Le Prince devised a motion picture camera and projector five years before the Lumiere brothers and six years before Edison. However, due to his disappearance, what might have been a historic date, the birth of cinema, in New York, was erased before it happened.”
Scottish engineer John Logie Baird made subsequent advances in the transmission of motion pictures, demonstrating a working television for the first time in 1926. In 1927, he transmitted images over 437 miles between London and Glasgow. And the following year, his Baird Television Development Company successfully transmitted moving images from London to New York and a ship in the mid-Atlantic.
Video applications in the
military and entertainment
One of the first major uses of transmissible video and television technology occurred during World War II. The Germans monitored the launches of their V-2 rockets—guided ballistic missiles used against Allied cities—using closed-circuit television (CCTV). CCTV is any video system where footage is collected and displayed internally rather than broadcast. You can see from this launch footage of a V-2 why the Germans might have been reluctant to stand near the launch pad:
The next big advances in video technology were in storage capability. Jack Mullin was a leader in magnetic tape audio recording (with much of his knowledge coming from his time in the Army studying captured Nazi recording equipment) and employed as a sound engineer by singer Bing Crosby. At Crosby’s request (and with his investment), Mullin adapted magnetic tape audio recording technology for video. The first prerecorded broadcast of The Bing Crosby Show happened in 1954. And further advances in storage, especially the mass-market success of the videocassette recorder (VCR) in the 1970s, made recording far more convenient.
Cameras used for public and
Soon, video surveillance was being used to fight crime. In 1960, CCTV was employed to monitor crowds at London’s Trafalgar Square during a visit by Thai royalty. In 1968, Olean, New York became the first city to install surveillance cameras in public.
The 1960s saw security systems that used intrusions sensors and cameras become far more common. There was an explosion of installations, the vast majority of which were commercial systems. All of them were hardwired—requiring very expensive installations—and many were “local” (also known as “direct connect”), meaning that they only alerted on-site staff rather than sending a signal to a remote monitoring station or emergency responders. Very few homes had systems during this period. Those that did were owned by extremely wealthy individuals, as they were very expensive.
Video surveillance and security finally entered the home in 1969 when African-American inventor Marie Van Brittan Brown received a patent for a video-based home security system. In her system, a mobile camera looked through a series of vertically arranged peepholes on the door (so it could see a person of any height). It was controlled by and transmitted video to a television monitor.
Notably, this system also allowed the user to unlock the door remotely. Brown said she developed her system to help her feel safer in her Jamaica, Queens home, where crime was on the rise and New York City police were slow to respond.
Along with Brown’s patent, other individuals around this time saw the promise of two key pieces of technology: the microcomputer and the modem. The 1970s saw the development of a wider range of commercial and residential home security systems that were remotely monitored—sending an alarm signal to monitoring centers through telephone lines, aka plain old telephone service (POTS).
POTS-monitored systems became the standard in this decade, which also introduced the common protocol of a monitoring center receiving an alarm signal; calling the premises to make sure everything was okay; and, if they couldn't reach anyone or didn’t get an “all clear” from an authorized individual, dispatching the appropriate authorities.
In the 1980s, home security systems became far more common as they became less expensive. They were still mostly hardwired and involved costly installation, but major alarm providers starting discounting the upfront costs in return for charging monthly system monitoring fees. This vastly expanded the home security system market, and the introduction of the first wireless sensors set the stage for another industry-wide revolution.
Hardwired alarm systems have several drawbacks. First, they are expensive to install and once they are put in, they are difficult to upgrade or move. Second, their dependence on a physical phone line and the physical connections within the system make them vulnerable; knowledgeable criminals could cut external lines to stop the signal to a monitoring center or potentially cut the lines that connect cameras or intrusion sensors to the alarms.
The wider use of cellular monitoring and wireless sensors in the 1990s addressed this vulnerability—as well as lowered the expense and hassle of installation.
Home security systems in the digital age
Analog security cameras remained the standard until and even past the advent of the internet. Networked cameras (cameras with IP addresses that transmit video via ethernet) first became available in 1996, though they took a while to catch on.
Wi-Fi entered the consumer market in 1997, and cameras can now transmit video wirelessly to control centers, computer monitors, or phones.
By the 2000s, hardwired systems became less common, as more systems primarily relied on cellular monitoring that uses internet monitoring as a back-up. This decade also saw the rise of interactive services that enabled users to access their homes via a web browser or app, as well as the DIY approach: purchasers could buy various components from home security companies and install the wireless sensors themselves, without the need for professional installation.
The introduction of wireless sensors that communicate via Bluetooth, ZigBee, and Z-Wave (all three of which are radio-frequency technologies) enabled remote and automatic control of various home appliances including lights, locks, thermostats and more. The smart home security system was born, and the use of this technology is exploding.
Today’s wireless, smart security systems vastly expand the control of your home, building on traditional security measures with the latest technology. Strong doors and locks limit access to your home, while a smart system lets you lock and unlock doors remotely from a smartphone. A properly-lit home provides good visibility and makes burglars more reluctant to target the residence—and a smart system allows you to program your lights to automatically turn on and off while you are out of town. Smart systems also enable you to see exactly what is going on in your home at all times with cameras that can be accessed over the internet.
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