The Television Remote Control: A Brief History

Mixed race woman laughing at TV
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It was in June of 1956 that the practical television remote controller first entered the American home. However, as far back as 1893, a remote control for television was described by Croatian inventor Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) in U.S. Patent 613809. The Germans used remote control motorboats during WWI. In the late 1940s, the first non-military uses for remote controls appeared, such as automatic garage door openers.

Zenith Debuts World's First Remote Control

The Zenith Radio Corporation created the very first television remote control in 1950 called "Lazy Bone." The Lazy Bone could turn a television on and off as well as change channels. However, it was not a wireless remote control. The Lazy Bone remote control was attached to the television by a bulky cable. It turned out that consumers did not like the cable because people kept tripping over the cord.

The Flash-Matic Wireless Remote

It was Zenith engineer Eugene Polley (1915–2012) who created the "Flash-matic," the first wireless TV remote in 1955. The Flash-matic operated by means of four photocells, one in each corner of the TV screen. The viewer used a directional flashlight to activate the four control functions, which turned the picture and sound on and off as well as turned the channel tuner dial clockwise and counter-clockwise. However, the Flash-matic had problems working well on sunny days, when sunlight hitting the photocells sometimes changed channels at random.

Zenith Design Becomes the Standard

The improved "Zenith Space Command" remote control went into commercial production in 1956. This time, Zenith engineer Robert Adler (1913–2007) designed the Space Command based on ultrasonics. Ultrasonic remote controls remained the dominant design for the next 25 years, and, as the name suggests, they worked using ultrasound waves.

The Space Command transmitter used no batteries. Inside the transmitter were four lightweight aluminum rods that emitted high-frequency sounds when struck at one end. Each rod was a different length to create a different sound that controlled a receiver unit built into the television.

The first Space Command units were quite expensive for the consumer, because the device used six vacuum tubes in the receiver units that raised the price of a television by 30%. In the early 1960s, after the invention of the transistor, remote controls decreased in price and in size, as did all electronics. Zenith modified the Space Command remote control using the new benefits of transistor technology (and still using ultrasonics), creating small hand-held and battery-operated remote controls. Over nine million ultrasonic remote controls were sold.

Infrared devices replaced ultrasonic remote controls in the early 1980s.

Meet Robert Adler

Robert Adler was associate director of research at Zenith in the 1950s when the company’s founder-president E.F. McDonald Jr. (1886–1958) challenged his engineers to develop a device to "tune out annoying commercials," resulting in the prototype remote control.

Robert Adler held 180 patents for electronic devices, whose applications run from the esoteric to the everyday. He is best known as a pioneer in the development of the remote control. Among Robert Adler's earlier work is the gated-beam tube, which at the time of its introduction represented an entirely new concept in the field of vacuum tubes.

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