The original home security system was born out of life in a crime-ridden urban neighbourhood in the mid-1960s, as envisioned by its inventor, Marie Van Brittan Brown, an African American nurse living in Queens, New York.
Brown, arguably one of America’s great unheralded innovators, was moved to develop her concept of a home security system by her circumstances. She worked as a nurse and her husband, Albert Brown, was an electrician. They kept different hours, meaning Marie often found herself at home alone in the evenings. Conscious of the high crime rate and sluggish police response times in her neighbourhood, she began to consider ways of protecting herself and her home.
An idea ahead of its time
Marie’s ideas quickly began to solidify into carefully considered home security solutions that could be said to anticipate many of the products that have since emerged. Indeed, the patent that Marie and her husband Albert submitted on 1 August 1966, titled “Home Security System Utilizing Television Surveillance”, will likely sound rather prescient.
Her home security system comprised four peepholes, a sliding camera, TV monitors and microphones. The camera could move from peephole to peephole and was connected to TV monitors inside the home. Using those TV monitors, the homeowner would be able to see who was at the door, without having to open or physically attend it. Microphones also played a vital part in the system, allowing a vocal exchange with whoever was outside, again without having to open the door and engage in a face-to-face encounter.
A patent was slow to arrive, but it was greeted with some press interest – a New York Times article no less – when it was finally granted on 2 December 1969. Brown even received an award from the National Scientists Committee.
Subsequent history has proved the Browns’ concept to be a winner but back in the late-60s implementing it was prohibitively expensive. It’s probably fair to say that additional features like an option to unlock the front door using a remote control or contact the police with the press of a button wouldn’t have done much to address the system’s affordability issue.
Though the Browns’ Home Security System proved to be beyond the means of most households in the 1960s its influence seems beyond doubt in the 2020s. Perhaps tellingly, aspects of its design started to find their way into business security before they were widely utilised in homes.
But gradually the ideas that Marie and Albert envisioned the best part of six decades ago have become fairly commonplace. For many years, home security was the sole preserve of wealthy homeowners who had the means and motivation to populate their expansive properties with security cameras and, in theory at least, gain some peace of mind. But the last decade has witnessed the dawn of ‘smart’ technology that presents budget-friendly solutions to monitor the comings and goings inside and outside your home via a mobile phone app.
The Browns’ original patent has now been cited in at least 32 patent applications, and it’s not unreasonable to claim that they invented the closed-circuit television (CCTV) security system.
The fact that Marie Van Brittan Brown died in 1999, aged 76, long before her ingenious home security system began to be properly realised, gives some sense of its remarkable prescience.