Automation and control systems have greatly impacted the world we live in. Designed to create better, more efficient machinery, the history behind automation actually began much earlier than many people think. Early societies in Arabia and Greece both used simple forms of float-valve regulators for things such as water clocks, water tanks, and wine dispensers. Here are some of the most notable automation and control systems throughout history:
Believed to be the first feedback control device, Ktesibio in Alexandria, Egypt had a mechanism designed to not only fuel, but regulate, a clock using water as fuel. It was so accurate that it wasn’t until the 17th century that the pendulum clock would replace it.
Cornelis Drebbel operated a furnace using a feedback loop, which essentially turned into the world’s first thermostat.
1683 – 1757
Rene-Antoine Ferchault de Reamur of France proposed designs for being able to control the temperatures in incubators. His design was based on a closed-loop feedback process.
A feedback mechanism was patented in 1745 by Edmond Lee. It was originally designed for sails on windmills, helping them to tent. But later, the same idea was used with a steam engine governor. In 1788, James Watt used this feedback mechanism to provide control of a throttle, although it wasn’t exact. From this time forth, continual patents would continue to improve a more precise design.
1907 – 1914
Elmer Sperry invented an early version of an active stabilizer, used for stabilizing ships and for putting airplanes on autopilot when flying long distances. Although there were hiccups along the way, by the early 1930s, “negative feedback” was being understood. Near the end of this era, the communications boom was also starting, with both wired and wireless systems emerging.
SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) were first introduced and used at substations with high voltage located next to power plants, in order to control and monitor from the control room in the power plant. Later, in the 1960s, these SCADA units were placed remotely and used remote terminal units (RTUs) to better serve the industry. Intelligent Electronic Devices (IED) used microprocessors and ports for communication to power the components.
1935 – 1950
Some refer to this time as the “Classical Period,” in which four large groups were simultaneously working on controls or control theory. AT&T, Builders Iron Foundry Company, Foxboro Company, and Servomechanisms Laboratory (MIT) were simultaneously working on issues like moving targets, gun aiming, target tracking, and platform stability.
Modern controls began to show up. Control engineers’ understanding started to expand as awareness of measurement errors, noise contamination, and uncertain environments were acknowledged. At this time Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) had evolved from Numerical Control (NC). In 1959, digital computers which were able to completely control industrial processes were being worked on.
Direct digital control (DDC) used a control algorithm discreetly, but due to their cost microcomputers took over during the 70s. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) helped to streamline the automotive industry and although it was originally too complicated for users to alter, changes turned the PLCs into a ladder configuration which controllers and electricians could change or fix.
The 1970s- 2000s
The 1970s would introduce a remote I/O, the 80s would link PLCs to PCs, and the 90s would have fieldbus protocols and ethernet and TCP/IP connectivity to PLCs. Controllers would be embedded with web servers in the 2000s.
Many advances have been made throughout the history of automation, such as improved quality, increased predictability, improved consistency and increased output. New technologies are being developed and refined every day, making it an exciting time to be working in the automation field.