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Poor George Crowley.

The 80-year-old engineer, known as the father of the electric blanket, died of pneumonia earlier this month. Had he managed to hang on just a little longer -- perhaps another year -- he'd have been able to witness the evolution of his invention into a key component of a new wired age.

Just when we thought goose-down duvets had clinched a big fluffy stranglehold around the bedding industry, the old plug-in blanket -- adapted in the 1940s by General Electric from Crowley's heated suits for bomber crews -- is heating up for a toasty comeback.

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Don't laugh. Naysayers might dismiss them as nothing more than lumpy fire hazards, destined for extinction as soon as the current crop of senior citizens dies off, but electric blankets -- or automatic blankets, as they are sometimes called these days -- are poised to become a central component in the new smart homes of the future.

For those who have been too wrapped up in their bulky comforters to notice, electric blankets have changed with the times. Sleek and cozy, they come equipped with ergonomically-designed remote controls. They can be preheated to 22 different temperatures and will then turn off automatically after 10 hours of use.

The most popular electric blanket on the market today is Sunbeam's Blanket with a Brain. Fitted with micro-sensors that function like invisible thermostats, the wiring system measures body temperature and generates heat accordingly. If your toes are cold, the personalized monitoring system will turn up the heat down there, without scorching the rest of your body. Couples, by the way, can enjoy dual controls with separate monitoring systems.

Electric blankets are about to become even smarter.

That's right. At the International 2000 Housewares Show in Chicago last week, Sunbeam Corp. -- the company that has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the electric-blanket market for the past 50 years -- unveiled its revolutionary Home Linking Technology. The line involves nine "intelligent" products that communicate with one another through built-in circuitry that connects to the electrical wiring in your house.

All you need to do is plug in your alarm clock. Before your feet find your slippers, it will turn off the electric blanket and tell the coffee maker to start brewing. But, unlike Bill Gates's grand home vision that involves talking freezers and such, the Sunbeam technology works just by plugging it in to your existing household outlets. Plus, it will be competitively priced, retailing at between $50 and $80 (U.S.)

The high-tech gadgets will be distributed through Sunbeam's new subsidiary, Thalia, which stands for Thinking and Linking Intelligent Appliances. And even though they won't be on the market for another year, Wall Street has stood up and noticed. Since the products were unveiled last week, Sunbeam's stock price has shot up about 20 per cent.

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Sunbeam's sudden renaissance will undoubtedly cheer company executives, who have been plagued with allegations of accounting fraud and lawsuits in connection with fires attributed to electric blankets.

And it would have cheered Crowley, who often testified as an expert witness in court cases, which frequently concluded that the fires had been started by cigarettes.

"He loved [the blankets]" his wife said. "We have one on our king-size bed right now."

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