A 30 Year Old Smart Thermostat

We’re in an era of cheap, affordable, and common smart thermostats. You can walk into near any sort of hardware store and pick up a thermostat that thinks about the temperature in your building rather than merely following a program. The thing is though, the common, consumer technology we have today started life as advanced, expensive, and complex industrial hardware decades ago.

The Grand Rapids Amiga

The Grand Rapids Public School System used a Commodore Amiga 2000 to power their HVAC System for just about 30 years straight. This system was set up around 1985 or so when it was considered cutting edge. At the time, a cell phone probably weighed a good 20 pounds, a powerful computer might run at 7 megahertz (the first iphone was about 80 times faster than an Amiga 2000), and airbags were over a decade away from being mandatory in cars.

This begs the question: how could such a system ever work?

Like any computer today, the Amiga just had to be programmed. It had a special radio transmitter/receiver which would communicate with each of the district’s buildings’ HVAC equipment. It received sensor data and transmitted when to turn the heating or cooling on or off.  It was just like a modern thermostat, but in a bigger, more power-hungry package.

What we find particularly incredible is that this system was built by one of the district’s students. Anyone can learn programming, plenty of people learn to code in school, but a student setting up an essential part of the school district like this is a bit more unheard of. What’s even more incredible is that they built the system to last.

In the 1980s, the Amiga at the heart of the system would’ve cost a few thousand dollars. The controlling equipment likely adds in a few thousand more. If the original Amiga and equipment cost perhaps $10,000 in 1980s money, that’d be around $20,000 today. To replace the Amiga with modern equipment, the district planned to spend a cool $2 Million. That an old computer could keep the district running for so long, and then prove such a hard thing to replace is incredible to us.

Check out the video to learn more.


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