A History of Firsts Has Led to Today’s Smart Cities

1844: First Telegraph Message Sent

Samuel F. Morse sends the first electric telegraph message, “What hath God wrought?” from Washington, D.C. to his assistant in Baltimore. It marks the beginning of a new era of communication in which information travels faster than humans. 

1858: First Transatlantic Telegraph Message 

Initially decried as a hoax, the first transatlantic telegraph message is sent between London and New York City. Shortly thereafter, Queen Victoria sends a telegraph of her own to President Buchanan. It takes 16 hours to transmit. 

1863: The Metropolitan Railway Opens 

The world’s first mass transit system, the Metropolitan Railway, opens in London. On its inaugural day, it carries 38,000 passengers between Paddington and Farrington on gas-lit wooden carriages hauled by steam locomotives. 

Source: Transport for London

1876: The Telephone Arrives

Alexander Graham Bell unveils his telephone at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, placing it on opposite ends of the exhibition hall to showcase the human voice being transmitted by cables. 


1878: Paris Becomes the “City of Lights” 

As part of the Exhibition of 1878, electric arc lights are placed along the Avenue de l’Opéra in Paris, making it the first city to feature an electric lighting system and earning it the nickname “The City of Lights”. 


1882: Pearl Street Station Power Plant 

The Edison Illuminating Company, headed by Thomas Edison, opens Pearl Street Station, the first commercial central power plant in the world. Powered by steam, the New York City plant initially provides electricity to 400 lamps for 82 customers. 

Source: GridCo Systems, 2017

1884: New York City’s First Solar Panels 

Charles Fritt, inventor of selenium cells, installs the first solar panel array on a building in New York City, bringing solar power to the Big Apple before all of the city even has electricity.


1885: Holland Pioneers the Bike Lane

Utrecht, Holland opens the world’s first dedicated bicycle lane to the public, inspiring similar projects in Brooklyn, NY and Brussels, Belgium. With over 56,000 miles of dedicated bike paths used by 36% of its population, modern-day Holland is widely considered the world’s most bike-friendly nation.  

Source: Dutch Biking Council

1901: Marconi Transmits Across the Atlantic 

Italian physicist and radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi sends the first radio transmission across the Atlantic Ocean. Detractors say the curvature of the earth would limit transmission to less than 200 miles, but Marconi’s message, the Morse Code signal for the letter S, travels more than 2,000 miles from Cornwall, England, to Newfoundland, Canada. 

Source: History.com

1913: Ford’s Assembly Line Starts Rolling 

The first moving assembly line car manufacturing plant is opened by Henry Ford outside of Detroit. The mass production of cars introduces personal transportation to the mass market. 


1925: Houdina Drives 1st Radio-Operated Car

Houdina Radio Control Company drives a radio-operated automobile, a 1926 Chandler, through New York City traffic. Using a transmitting antenna, the car is operated from a second vehicle that follows it with a transmitter. The radio signals operate small electric motors that direct every movement of the car. 


1927: Jacobs Brothers Wind Turbine 

Marcellus and Joe Jacobs develop the first commercial wind turbine in Montana. The brothers sought to bring the urban conveniences of electricity to farmers who couldn’t afford gas generators. Today, Jacobs Wind is the oldest renewable energy company in the U.S. 


1932: The Autobahn Connects Bonn to Cologne 

Bonn and Cologne become the first cities in Germany to connect to the Autobahn, an early controlled access highway. The subsequent autobahns built throughout the country become the first limited-access high-speed road network in the world.



1936: BBC TV Launches

BBC Television Service officially launches. Its first large-scale live broadcast of the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the following year showcases the medium’s potential for sharing live events with millions of people. 


1946: The First Computer

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) is switched on at the University of Pennsylvania. The first electronic computer, it weighs over 30 tons. ENIAC’s combination of speed and programmability is a tremendous resource to scientists and engineers, as the computer needs only 30 seconds to calculate a trajectory that previously took a human 20 hours to solve. 

Source: Computer History, Birth of the Computer

1954: World’s First Nuclear Power Plant

Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant, the world’s first grid-connected nuclear power plant producing commercial electricity, begins generating power near Moscow, USSR. 


1956: The Federal Highway Act is Signed

Inspired by the German Autobahn system that he saw during WWII, president Dwight Eisenhower signs the Federal Highway Act of 1956, authorizing construction of a network of high-capacity controlled access roads connecting major cities across the U.S. The roads allow Americans to reliably, safely, and quickly travel the county by automobile, leading to the decline of passenger railroads and the rise of suburbanization and “car culture.”


1960: Geysers Geothermal Energy Station 

Pacific Gas and Electric begins operating the first successful geothermal electric power station in the U.S. at the Geysers, the world’s largest geothermal field, located north of San Francisco. 


1963: Syncom 2 Satellite Goes Into Orbit

NASA launches Syncom 2, the first successful communications satellite, into geosynchronous orbit. President John F. Kennedy, in Washington, D.C, makes the first live two-way call between heads of government by satellite, to Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. 


1964: High-Speed Rail Becomes Reality 

The Tōkaidō Shinkansen railroad line opens in advance of the 1964 Olympic Games hosted in Tokyo, Japan. The world’s first high-speed rail line, the “bullet train” travels at 130 MPH and inspires similar systems around the world. 

Source: Japan Times 2008

1968: Brazil Introduces the Curitiba Master Plan 

Curitiba, Brazil, begins implementation of a smart transportation initiative that favors walkability and rapid transit, the first time any city has undertaken such a project on such a large scale. Known as the Curitiba Master Plan, it redesigns city streets to minimize traffic, including giving express buses their own lanes. Today, Curitiba is considered one of the world’s best examples of urban planning. 

Source: Sustainable Urban Planning, Curitiba City

1969: MIT Sends the First Email 

The first electronic message between computers is sent on the campus of MIT using their Computational Time-Sharing System. Management of the system initially considers sending electronic “letters” to be a waste of resources. It would not be until Ray Tomlinson’s famous 1971 message via ARPANET that the technology’s applications were seriously considered. 


1973: Motorola Creates the Cellular Phone 

Martin Cooper, head of Motorola’s Communications Systems Division, makes the first cellular phone call. While walking down the street, he calls Joel Engel, his rival at AT&T who is working on a similar technology, to let him know that he has a functional portable phone. 


1974: L.A. Publishes First Urban Planning Report 

Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau publishes “The State of the City: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” the first urban planning report using data gathered and interpreted by computers. Programmers use existing census data to better understand the demographics of the city and the cluster analysis to reveal correlations between data and social outcomes. 


1975: Combatting Congestion and Air Pollution 

The Singapore Area Licensing Scheme goes into effect across the city-state. Intended to reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality and boost ridership of public transit, it’s the first urban traffic congestion pricing plan in the world and inspires similar congestion charge programs in cities including London, Rome, and Bogota. 


1980: Nuclear Overtakes Oil 

For the first time, nuclear energy generates more electricity than oil in the U.S. 


1980: China Establishes Its First Special Economic Zone

The first of the five Special Economic Zones is established near the village of Shenzhen, China. Intended to act as laboratories of capitalism, these areas help launch explosive growth in the Chinese economy as the county embraces free-market policies throughout the ’80s and ’90s. 


1982: Solar One Power Plant 

The U.S. Department of Energy opens Solar One, the first test of a large-scale thermal solar power tower plant. 


1984: Competition Comes to the Telecom Industry 

In an effort to settle an antitrust lawsuit initiated by the U.S. Department of Justice, AT&T dissolves its monopoly of local telephone service in the U.S. AT&T had been the largest corporation in American history and dominated U.S. telephone service and hardware manufacturing. For the first time, the American telecom industry is open to competition, opening the door to a new era of innovation. 


1986: Motorola Launches Text Capable Pager

The Motorola Bravo pager goes on sale. While “beepers” had been in use by government, police, and medical personnel since the 1970s, the Bravo and its ability to store five 24-character messages brings this iconic tech into the mainstream for the first time. 


1988: “Cyberia” Internet Café Opens 

“Cyberia,” the world’s first internet café opens near Hongik University in Seoul, South Korea. Providing internet access at a time when computers and home access was prohibitively expensive, internet cafés surge in popularity around the world throughout the ’90s, introducing a generation to the wonders of the web. 


1991: Vindeby Offshore Wind Farm Completed

The world’s first offshore wind farm is completed off the coast of Denmark. The Vindeby Offshore Wind Farm consists of 11 turbines generating a collective 4.95 mW, fulfilling the annual power needs of 3,000 Danish homes. 

Source: South Baltic, Offshore Wind Energy Regions

1991: Highway Tolls Become Self-Serve 

The first use of completely unaided full-speed electronic tolling is used on a highway in Trondheim, Norway. Electronic tolling becomes prevalent around the world, allowing municipalities to charge tolls without vehicles having to slow down. 


1994: The Corporation for Solar Technology and Renewable Resources 

The first solar dish generator is tied to a utility grid. The Corporation for Solar Technology and Renewable Resources, a public corporation, is established to facilitate solar development at the Nevada Test Site. 


1995: The First Autonomous Car

A converted Pontiac Trans Port is the first vehicle to drive autonomously across the United States, from Pittsburgh to San Diego. It makes the culmination of over 10 years of research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, and demonstrates the potential of autonomous vehicles. 


1997: The Prius Hits the Market 

Toyota releases the Prius, the first mass produced gasoline-electric hybrid car. Launched initially in Japan, the carmaker introduces the vehicle internationally in 2000. 


1999: The World Meets the Blackberry 

Canadian firm Research In Motion introduces the first Blackberry 850. Capable of accessing the internet, organizing schedules, and sending and receiving emails, BlackBerrys quickly become a hit with corporate executives and other professionals. 


2004: Fastest Commercial Train in the World 

The Shanghai Transrapid Maglev system begins operation. The first commercial application of its kind, the system connects downtown Shanghai with Pudong Airport 18 miles away using magnetic levitation trains that hover above the track. It is the fastest commercially-operated train in the world, capable of traveling at 268 MPH. 

Source: Shanghai Maglev Train

2006: Masdar City Construction Begins 

Construction begins on Madar City, UAE. It’s the first purpose-built city in the world created to rely on solar and other renewable energy sources. The city is designed to be a hub for cleantech companies. 


2007: Smartphones Enter the Market 

Apple introduces the iPhone, for the first time bringing smartphones out of the workplace and into the lives of consumers, leading to the rise of the “app economy.” One year later, Google releases its first Android smartphone, initiating a technology race that continues today. 


2008: Bahrain World Trade Center Opens 

Bahrain World Trade Center opens in Manama, Bahrain. The two towers are the first buildings in the world to include integrated wind turbines. Each structure has a 225 kW wind turbine capable of providing 11% to 15% of the towers’ total power needs. 

Source: E-architect, 2016

2009: Oslo’s Smart Lighting System 

Oslo installs a smart lighting system along city streets. For the first time, urban lighting can be dimmed or adjusted remotely according to the weather and movement in the area, and colored lighting can control the flow of traffic and pedestrians. Saved energy can then be used for other functions. 


2011: Heathrow Introduces Personal Rapid Transit 

Heathrow International Airport in London becomes the first airport in the world to feature Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT. The Ultra (Urban Light Transit) system connects several terminals with a remote parking lot by a miniature railroad piloted by automated podcars whose destinations are determined by riders. 


2012: Three Gorges Dam Completed 

The Three Gorges Dam spanning the Yangtze River is completed in Hubei Province, China. Capable of generating 22,500 mW, the hydroelectric power station is the world’s largest and an engineering marvel. 

Source: U.S. Geological Survey, 2016

2014: Free Wifi and Internet in New York City 

LinkNYC is created to provide free WiFi and internet access throughout New York City. Built atop the city’s obsolete payphone network, it’s on track to become the world’s largest public high-speed wireless network by 2020. 

Source: LinkNYC

2014: Tesla Installs Charging Stations Across the U.S 

Tesla completes a network of Supercharger Stations stretching from New York City to Los Angeles, allowing drivers of its electric cars to travel from coast to coast, charging along the way. 


2016: China sees 700+ Million Daily Internet Users

China becomes the first nation to top 700 million daily internet users, most of whom access it via mobile devices. Mandarin is expected to overtake English as the internet’s primary language by the end of the decade. 

Source: TechCrunch, 2017

2017: D.C. Named First LEED Certified City

Washington, D.C is named the first LEED for Cities Platinum City. One of the world’s most respected green building certification programs, it’s bestowed upon buildings and cities demonstrating a commitment to sustainability, green energy use and public transit accessibility. 65% of Washington, D.C is walkable, 58% of commuter trips are taken by bike or public transit, and the city government is powered entirely by renewable energy. 

Source: U.S. Green Building Council 2017

2017: South Miami Requires Solar Panels 

South Miami, Florida approves a measure to become the first city in the world to require solar panels on new homes. Florida has ideal conditions for adopting a solar technology and is increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 


2017: Mass-Production of Self-Driving Cars

General Motors and Cruise Automation announce their intention to launch the first mass production of a self-driving car. Based on the Chevy Bolt, the cars will begin being assembled by the end of the year. 


2020: Tokyo Introduces Self-Driving Taxis 

Coinciding with the Olympics, Tokyo introduces a fleet of self-driving taxis to the city’s roads, echoing the introduction of the Shinkansen for the 1964 Games. 



2020: Volvo Goes Electric Only 

Sino-Swedish automaker Volvo introduces a fully electric lineup of cars and SUVs. 


2020: 5G Becomes the Standard Bearer

The 5G telecommunications standard is introduced in the United States. With potential speeds and capacity up to 100 times greater than 4G, 5G will be the backbone of widespread Internet of Things (IoT) and self-driving car technology. 

Source: ArsTechnica, 2016

2021: International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor 

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is completed in Cadarache, France. A global project funded by the European Union, China, Russia, Korea, India, Japan, Australia and the United States, the facility will produce the first self-sustaining plasma charge by 2025, a major breakthrough towards achieving the century-long dream of “cold fusion.” 

Source: ITER, 2017

2025: Norway and Netherlands Ban Internal Combustion 

Both Norway and the Netherlands prohibit the sale of vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine. Germany, India and China plan to follow suit by the end of the 2020s. 


2025: San Jose to Bakersfield at 200 MPH

Connecting San Jose and Bakersfield, the first segment of California’s High-Speed Rail network is completed. Traveling at over 200 MPH, the system will eventually connect the state’s largest cities from San Francisco to San Diego by 2035. 

Source: California High Speed Rail 2016 Business Plan