Most of you have probably heard the Internet of Things, or the IoT, mentioned but have you ever wondered what it means and where it all began?

Well here’s my version of it:

In 1999, the Auto-ID Centre was founded, which subsequently formed a unique partnership between around 100 international companies and 7 of the world’s leading research Universities, including the MIT and University of Cambridge. Kevin Ashton, Professor Sanjay Sarma and David Brock were the early co-founders and I became involved as European Research Director a year later setting up the European side of things and pushing the industrial research.

The Auto-ID Centre’s aim was to investigate and understand what came next after the barcode – and particularly what an electronic barcode would look like. Sanjay came to see me in Cambridge in March, 2000. We discussed barcodes and RFID as an electronic replacement and I think my initial comment was that it all seemed a reasonably dull research activity! I was of course later forced to eat my words as the project expanded but also in our research we realised that RFID was actually a solution to a manufacturing control problem we had been trying to resolve – how to establish an Internet connection for parts and products while they were being made.  My other memory from Sanjay’s visit was that he was struggling with the challenge of getting a bowl of pasta with an RFID tag to communicate with a microwave oven (!) – he had to do a demo for Procter & Gamble (P&G) the next day at the Judge Business School in Cambridge and it had been hard hacking into the controls of the microwave to make it all work.

The focus of the Centre from the beginning was to research ways in which an electronic tag could be put on every single object in the world, allowing each to be uniquely tracked and potentially controlled – and to do so in the most cost effective way. We realised that to make RFID cheap we needed the smallest chip possible – Silicon was/is expensive – and thus we needed to put all stored data in memory elsewhere. The Internet was the obvious place to start, hence the phrase “Internet of Objects” or “Internet of Things” became a clear reference point and the origin of the internet of things that we refer to today.

I believe the term “Internet of Things” was in fact coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999 during a presentation he made at P&G. Around that time, he observed that we were developing an extension of the Internet to accommodate Things and hence the term “Internet of Things” evolved. He was certainly using it in Auto ID Centre talks quite regularly by 2000. Not that anything is ever really new – people had been connecting objects to networks long before that!  The famous Cambridge Computer Lab coffee pot back in 1993 was an early example.

In 2002, Kevin said:

“This is the next 50 years of computing. This is not a small thing. This is as significant a technology as, certainly the Internet, possibly the invention of the computer itself”.

Fast-forward 13 years and, today, the IoT means different things to different people.  When I sit in meetings today discussing the IoT and its developments I am not always sure that today’s IoT vision is in line with Kevin’s initial concept and ideas. I often get the impression that IoT is considered to be simply a means of connecting different sensors to a network and it seems Kevin’s vision may have been shrunk over the years?


Professor Duncan McFarlane
Chairman & Co-Founder | RedBite Solutions
Director, Auto-ID Lab Cambridge