But I Digress… A Short History of the Remote Control

Zenith Flash-Matic advertisement (AP Photo/LG Electronics) AP

 Though this blog is a travel and photography blog, I felt like changing things up a bit to focus on some technology we take for granted. Everything from automobiles to vacuum cleaners now provides some degree of remote control. A little over a year ago, Eugene Polley, inventor of the first wireless remote control passed away at the age of 96. After seeing his obituary, I was moved to write this short history of the television remote control. Never fear, I will continue to post travel and photography stories with my next post.

Zenith Electronics was the leader in the design and development of television remotes. Their first model, developed in 1950, was called the Lazy Bones remote. It was not very popular and depended upon a long cable that sent electrical signals from the controller to the television.

In 1955, Eugene Polley, a Zenith engineer, developed a light activated remote called Flash-Matic. The unit looked like a cross between a ray gun and a flashlight. The viewer would point the light at one of the four corners of the television to change the channel or turn the set on or off. Of course, ambient room light and stray lights from nearby windows drove the TV to uncommanded contortions.

Zenith Flash-Matic Controller (AP Photo/LG Electronics) AP

Only one year later, Robert Adler, also from Zenith, developed a much more useful remote control that Zenith dubbed the Space Command remote. Instead of light, the unit emitted ultrasonic “pings”. A mechanical hammer would tap a tuned rod, generating a specific frequency heard only by the television (and any nearby dogs, which sometimes set to barking.) The Space Command remote was the first remote control that I remember seeing. When I worked in a TV shop, I routinely was called upon to fix the TVs that were so equipped.

Zenith two-function remote

The most common problem with these remotes involved the family pet. The family would be gathered around the TV watching Red Skelton or  I Love Lucy, when the dog would come bounding in. The dog would get into a playful tussle with the children and the TV would go crazy, turning itself off and on and changing channels randomly. The culprit was the dog collar containing a couple of dog tags that would clang together and emit sounds of the right frequency to trip the remote control circuitry in the television.

The most unusual service call I personally made was to a house where the TV would simply change channels at random, and not very often. The other techs and I actually made several calls to this house and, of course, the TV would never misbehave when a tech was there. One day, I happened to be there, and shortly after I got there, the TV changed channels all by itself. I don’t know why I noticed it, but I happened to hear the refrigerator in the kitchen start its compressor. That turned out to be the trigger. Apparently the compressor motor was generating an ultrasonic frequency at power on. Under certain conditions, that tone triggered the channel change circuitry in the TV. After unplugging the refrigerator and plugging it in again a couple of times, I found I could reproduce the channel change sometimes when the compressor started. We moved the TV a couple of feet away from the kitchen door and angled the set slightly away from the door and the problem disappeared.

Eventually, the audio remote gave way to the standard infra-ted remote that we now use in the vast majority of remote control applications. Infra-Red remotes broadcast a digital code that varies depending upon the function being controlled. A sensor in the controlled device decodes the data stream and performs the required action.

Some whole house satellite and cable receivers use radio frequency codes, as do garage door openers. These remotes broadcast a radio signal so they can operate the controlled device through walls. I suspect the infra-red and radio remotes will coexist for many years to come.

John Steiner

Photo credits:

Flash-Matic remote photos


Space Command remote photo


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