The First IoT Device: Internet Connected Coke Machine

How did a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon wind up creating the first IoT device almost 20 years before the phrase Internet of Things was even coined?

A combination of ingenuity and laziness.

In the early 1980s, the idea of connecting devices to the Internet was largely theoretical.

The Internet itself was in its infancy. Carnegie Mellon was among the first universities to connect to the ARPANET, the DoD funded precursor to today’s Internet.

In 1982, researchers and students in the computer science department had a serious problem.

They’d often find themselves walking to the building’s Coca Cola vending machine only to find it was either empty or the drinks were too warm.

Serious stuff.

So naturally, they came up with a way to connect the university’s Coke machine to the Internet. This way, they could check the status of the machine remotely before making the trek to grab a beverage.

History was made. It just didn’t feel like it at the time.

Michael Kazar, who was a Carnegie Mellon grad student at the time, told Politico in a 2015 retrospective: “It really was not a very significant thing at the time. There was a Coke machine on the third floor of this eight-story building, and people didn’t like the fact that they would go down all the way to the third floor and discover the Coke machine was empty.”

According to IBM’s Industrious blog, students installed microswitches in the bottle-based vending machine to keep track of the fill state of each column. They also tracked how long the bottles had been inside the 1970s machine.

To determine whether drinks were cold enough, they installed temperature sensors.
The most innovative part involved connecting the machine to the university’s network.
Students designed a board that interfaced with the machine’s sensors and connected to a computer.

Custom-developed software queried the connected computer for the machine’s status.
Using could send a simple command from any terminal in the network, and the program would return info about the drink situation.

This wasn’t a formal research project. It was a product of Carnegie Melon’s culture, which emphasizes problem solving and technological innovation.

While eliminating an annoyance at CMU, the Internet-connected Coke machine demonstrated the potential of connected technology.

The proof of concept laid the groundwork for what would become known as the Internet of Things.

Connected devices slowly gained traction throughout the 80s and 90s in academic and technology circles. The term Internet of Things was coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton at Procter & Gamble.

With an emphasis on connecting objects to the Internet to collect and exchange data, Ashton’s concept unlocked a previously unimaginable level of automation.

Smart technology really took off in the 2010s with the proliferation of broadband Internet and inexpensive microprocessors.

Today, the state of Internet of Things is truly staggering. The number of connected devices reached over 14 billion in 2023. According to IoT Analytics, that number is expected to grow 16 percent to 16.7 billion in 2024.

For perspective, the number of IoT devices far exceeds the global population.

Modern Coca-Cola vending machines are equipped with smart technology for remote monitoring and management.

The devices track everything from inventory levels to customer preferences to machine health.

Coca-Cola uses the collected data to ensure popular choices are stocked and to cater selection to location preferences.

Smart energy management systems can reduce power consumption during off-peak hours, contributing to the company’s environmental sustainability goals.