A History of TV Remote Controls
It's hard to imagine life without remote controls, but it's been a long, strange path to the modern incarnation we know and love today.
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Zenith’s Space Command remote control used no batteries. It contained aluminum rods that when struck, emitted distinctive high-frequency sounds.
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May 23, 2012 by Scott Wasser

Fortunately for couch potatoes everywhere, Zenith engineers soon realized that remotes might work better with sound than light. But remotes that emitted an audible sound whenever a button was pushed could be annoying. So another Zenith engineer, Dr. Robert Adler, came up with the idea of designing a remote that used ultrasonic sound, frequencies too high for humans to hear. In 1956, just a year after the Flash-Matic’s debut, Zenith turned Adler’s idea into the world’s first practical, wireless remote control, which it called “Space Command.”

Space Command worked so well that Adler was widely cited as the father of the remote control in obituaries that ran after he died last year at the age of 93. In Zenith’s own corporate history, it states that Adler led a team of engineers who designed the Space Command around four aluminum rods that acted like chimes by emitting an ultrasonic sound when struck by tiny, spring-loaded plungers corresponding to the buttons on the remote.

Although it is considered the first practical wireless TV remote, Space Command wasn’t really all that practical initially. That’s because it required a special receiver inside the TV that used six vacuum tubes and added about 30 percent to the cost of the set. Also, its ultrasonic emissions could cause dogs to bark, and occasionally a TV would change channels or turn on or off in response to an unheard environmental sound.

Nevertheless, the Space Command worked well enough to survive and evolve. Transistors replaced vacuum tubes in TVs and in the remotes, where could generate sound electronically and eliminate the tuning rods and plungers. It took reliable battery power to do that, however. The original Space Command was designed specifically not to use batteries because Zenith didn’t want consumers thinking something was wrong with the TV when the batteries failed.

According to Zenith, more than 9 million ultrasonic remote control TVs based on Adler’s design were eventually sold. The technology was a staple of television features for around 25 years. Although products evolve at a much faster rate these days than they did in the late 1950s through the 1970s, that is nevertheless an eternity in the rapidly changing world of consumer electronics.

Although the Space Command’s longevity proves that it was a much more viable remote than the short-lived Lazy Bones or the Flash-Matic, it too was eventually replaced by something better. That something was infrared remotes, which send a series of light pulses to receptors on TVs that interpret the pulses and perform the corresponding action. Nobody seems to know who should be credited with creating the first practical infrared remote. Perhaps that’s because several companies developed it simultaneously. In any case, infrared technology has been used almost exclusively in both dedicated and universal – remotes that can be programmed to operate several different devices – remotes since around 1980.

Will infrared remotes be around forever? That’s highly unlikely. As effective and practical as they are, they still have at least one shortcoming compared to the original Space Command remote: They have to be pointed at a TV to work. In an effort to eliminate that requirement and enable control of multi-room applications like whole-house sound systems, remotes that control devices using radio frequencies have become fairly popular. Digital technology helps ensure signal reliability and receiver circuitry small enough to fit into most electronic components.

In time, RF remotes might become as affordable and commonplace as infrared. And while they’re unlikely to ever be as dependable as asking your kid to get up to change the channel, they’ll also never be as dangerous as the remote system that nearly killed my mother.

Check out these other historical perspectives:
-The History of the Big TV
-Where Did TV Come From?
-TV Enters The Living Room
-The Ways We Watch
-The Rise of the Flat Panel
-Flat Panel Battles: Plasma vs LCD
-The Dawn of HDTV

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