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Remote control, automation and the lighting industry

Examples of remote control and automation are everywhere. From assembly lines with robots welding vehicle chassis to food processing facilities, smart phones and TVs, remote control and automation make our world simpler and more efficient.

Lighting, too, is an example of technology that can be remotely controlled and automated. We’ve come a long way since the days of the kerosene lantern and gas-operated streetlamps, with exponential growth in recent years. But the revolution in remote control and automation began more than a century ago.

The beginning of remote control and automation

An early form of remote control first appeared in 1898 at the Electrical Exhibition in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, where Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American inventor and engineer, publicly demonstrated a wireless, remote-controlled boat that he described as a “teleautomaton” (“tele” is a Greek word meaning “at or to a distance,” and “automaton” describes a system that requires less human labor).

Shortly after Tesla’s “teleautomaton” demonstration, in 1903, a robot called Telekino was unveiled at the Paris Academy of Science. Invented by Leonardo Torres Quevedo, a Spanish civil engineer and mathematician, Telekino was remotely controlled using electromagnetic waves. Thanks to Telekino, Leonardo is credited with creating the foundation for modern wireless control principles.

Controlling light to transmit information

Today, we can control light, but we can also use it to control other devices and transmit information.

Fiber optics and infrared (IR), modern-day data transfer technologies and methods of control, use visible and non-visible light respectively. A TV remote is the most common IR controller. Like Morse code, which was transmitted via electrical pulses that were then received as audible beeps, pulses of light can be used for transmission of data.

In 1867, the British Navy’s Vice Admiral Philip Colomb became the first to send information via light when he used a signaling lamp with a lens to project pulses of light at long distances. The pulses were created by a mechanical louver mounted in front of the lamp; the louver was opened and closed rapidly to create a pattern of flashing light that corresponded to letters.

To this day, most (if not all) Navy and Marine vessels around the world still employ this method of communication.

Light switches and lighting control systems: an early history

The simplest form of lighting control is the light switch.

In 1884, John Henry Holmes invented the first safe and practical light switch. Holmes’ switch employed “quick-break technology” to prevent arcing from occurring inside the unit when the circuit was opened. In 1896, Granville Woods patented the first dimmer, called the “Safety Dimmer.” Later, in 1916, William J. Newton contributed the toggle switch.

The need for lighting control systems first surfaced due to demands made by the entertainment industry. Today, theatrical productions utilize various light levels to indicate a change in time or the end of a scene. But early on, set designers used a bank of light switches that offered only two options – “on” or “off.” This limited designers and directors who wanted to encourage a particular mood or create a special ambiance to go along with the story happening onstage.

Advancements in lighting controls

Manually controlled resistance dimmers provided a basic way to dim light. After World War II, technology progressed, bringing widespread use of the “auto-transformer.” During the 1950s and 1960s, control boards incorporated silicon-controlled rectifiers, enabling designers to select presets and crossfaders. These options were manually controlled by sliders on the board, which allowed for the fading of the lights between presets.

The 1970s marked the first computer-based lighting system, the “Kliegl Performer.” Forty years later, the lighting industry has a multitude of systems that benefit from modern technology and standards such as Digital Multiplex (DMX) and Digital Addressable Lighting Interface (DALI). Regardless of the application, the lighting industry has a control system to match it.

Today, chatter around the “Internet of Things” is building as we attempt to make everything in our lives “smart,” from the locks on our doors to the thermostats that regulate our homes and the fridges that keep our food cool. Smart grills, crockpots, toothbrushes and similar products have even entered the discussion.

While smart toothbrushes might not replace the old-fashioned bristles-on-a-plastic-handle model anytime soon, lighting is a natural fit for smart technology. That said, the science of smart lighting and lighting controls will undoubtedly continue to grow exponentially. And whether you’re controlling a robot, mass-producing a product, tuning into the big game or setting the mood, the concept of remote control and automation will play an even larger role in everyday life in the future.