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Remote Control

June 21, 2005

A public radio commentary

We have officially been in the couch potato age for almost fifty years. It began in 1956 with Dr. Robert Adler at Zenith. He invented the remote control, called, in that age of Sputnik and rocketry, the "Zenith Space Command." It wasn't the earliest television remote control, but it was the first successful one.

It evolved from a remote called the "flashmatic." This controller flashed light at special photocells installed in the television set. These light signals could turn the television on and off and also rotate the channel selector knob. But it had to be used in a darkened room, because sunlight made the tuner rotate continuously.

Zenith engineers liked the idea of a remote control and so tried to improve on this design by using radio waves. But radio signals travel through walls and so could control a TV set in a nearby room. To find the right invisible signal, they turned to Robert Adler.

Adler was an expert in combining sound with electronics - a field called, not very cleverly, acusto-optical electronics.

Adler didn't want to use sound that could be heard by humans, he thought it would annoy users to hear a beep every time they changed a channel, plus some household noise, or a sound from the television itself, might trigger the channel to change. So he used "ultrasonics." That is, high-frequency sounds that are beyond human hearing.

Adler built a kind of silent "chime" that called out signals to the TV set. He placed inside his remote control four lightweight aluminum rods. These were of just the right size so that when lightly tapped, each emitted a high-frequency sound unheard by humans. He built into the TV set a special electronic circuit that could hear these sounds and react.

Adler's remote control, called the Space Command, but nicknamed the "clicker", was first marketed in 1956 - the year when we officially entered the couch potato age. It took a while for this couch potatoness to take hold because Adler's remote added nearly 30%, to the price of a TV. But, of course, human nature won out and by 1985 more televisions were sold with a remote than without.

What did the inventor of the television remote control think of how his little device evolved? In 1999 he said, "the thing has so many buttons, I don't know what most of them are for. And," he added, "frankly, I couldn't care less."

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises