A History of TV Remote Controls

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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.

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.


May. 23, 2012 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

In honor of yesterday’s news of the passing of remote pioneer Eugene Polley, we offer you this from the EH archives:

The first TV remote control in my childhood home nearly killed me. The second nearly killed my mom. Let me explain:

The first TV remote in our house wasn’t ultrasonic, infrared, or even mechanical. It was me.

“Turn that up a little bit,” Dad would instruct, pointing at our television set.

“Can you tune in the picture a little better?” Mom would ask.

“It’s time for Bonanza,” Dad would announce. “Change the channel.”

“Oh, I’ve seen that commercial a million times,” Mom said. “Switch over to Bewitched for a minute. And please turn that volume down!” she’d add just as I was about to sit down.

During a typical evening of family television viewing, I’d burn more calories than in a month of junior high gym classes. And whenever my grandparents came over to watch our new color television, there was a serious chance I would become the first student in the history of my school to have a coronary.

All of that took place long after Zenith Radio Corporation introduced the world’s first television remote control in 1950. The “Lazy Bones,” as it was called, worked OK, activating a motorized mechanical tuner on the TV set to which it was linked. The problem is that its link was a long cable. The convenience of being able to switch between the few channels available at the time was offset by the potential danger posed by a cord that had to be deftly avoided in dim light during commercial break food and bathroom runs.

But the potential peril posed by the Lazy Bones’ cord paled by comparison to the second remote control that appeared in our home, the one that nearly killed my mother. That remote consisted of a couple of 14-gauge electrical wires that started at my bed, wound their way through several eyelets screwed strategically into my bedroom walls and ceiling, and ended at a couple of locking pliers attached to my TV’s volume knob and channel dial.

Pulling one wire adjusted the volume and yanking the other changed channels – but only enough to select six of 13 on the dial. That was six too many for my mother. She walked into my room the day after I’d rigged my “remote control system,” failed to spot the channel-changing wire that crossed the door opening, and nearly decapitated herself.

So my Rube Goldberg-inspired remote wound up having a shorter lifespan than the second commercially available TV remote, the “Flash-Matic.” Like the Lazy Bones, Flash-Matic was another Zenith creation, this one the brainchild of an engineer named Eugene Polley. It became the world’s first wireless television remote control when the Zenith introduced it in 1955.

Flash-Matic was basically a Buck Rogers-looking flashlight with a focused beam that was used to activate four photo sensors built into the corners of select Zenith TVs. Each sensor served a specific function. By aiming the Flash-Matic at the appropriate corner, the user could turn the TV on or off, change channels, and adjust volume. One problem with Flash-Matic is that users had to remember which corner sensor performed which function. But what doomed the device was that the sensors were non-discriminating: Bright light that streamed through a window or bounced off a reflective surface could force viewers who really loved Lucy to spend some quality time with Red Skelton instead.

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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