How did the T.V remote control evolve?
We all know that the TV remote control is the sacred object of the male. This revered tool seems permanently fixed in hand as they are transfixed to the TV screen and if taken away a look of despair and horror ensues. But how did this male ‘must have’ object evolve?
If we go back as far as 1893, a remote control for television was described by Nikola Tesla in U.S. Patent 613809 as a “Method of an Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vehicle or Vehicles.” The first machines to be operated by remote control were used mainly for military purposes. Radio-controlled motorboats, developed by the German navy, were used to ram enemy ships in WWI. Radio controlled bombs and other remote control weapons were used in WWII. In the late 1940's the first non-military uses for remote controls appeared for example, automatic garage door openers.
However, the first TV remote control, called “Lazy Bones,” was developed in 1950 by Zenith Electronics Corporation (then known as Zenith Radio Corporation). Lazy Bones used a cable that ran from the TV set to the viewer. A motor in the TV set operated the tuner through the remote control. By pushing buttons on the remote control, viewers rotated the tuner clockwise or anticlockwise, depending on whether they wanted to change the channel to a higher or lower number. The remote control included buttons that turned the TV on and off. Although customers liked having remote control of their television, they complained that people tripped over the unsightly cable that meandered across the living room floor.
Zenith engineer Eugene Polley invented the ‘Flashmatic,’which represented the industry's first wireless TV remote. Introduced in 1955, Flashmatic operated by means of four photo cells, one in each corner of the TV cabinet around the screen.
While it pioneered the concept of wireless TV remote control, the Flashmatic did have some limitations. It was a simple device that had no protection circuits and, if the TV sat in an area in which the sun shone directly on it, the tuner might start rotating.
The idea proven by Polley’s Flashmatic was loved by Zenith who instructed engineers to develop a better remote control. First thoughts pointed to radio. But, because they travel through walls, radio waves could inadvertently control a TV set in an adjacent apartment or room.
Using distinctive sound signals was discussed, but Zenith engineers believed people might not like hearing a certain sound that would become characteristic of operating the TV set through a remote control. It also would be difficult to find a sound that wouldn't accidentally be duplicated by either household noises or by the sound coming from TV programming. Zenith's Dr. Robert Adler suggested using ‘ultrasonic’s,’ that is, high-frequency sound, beyond the range of human hearing. He was assigned to lead a team of engineers to work on the first use of ultrasonic’s technology in the home as a new approach for a remote control. The transmitter used no batteries; it was built around aluminium rods that were light in weight and, when struck at one end, emitted distinctive high-frequency sounds. The first such remote control used four rods, each approximately 2-1/2 inches long: one for channel up, one for channel down, one for sound on and off and one for power on and off. They were very carefully cut to lengths that would generate four slightly different frequencies. They were excited by a trigger mechanism - similar to the trigger of a gun - that stretched a spring and then released it so that a small hammer would strike the aluminium rod. The device was developed quickly, with the design phase beginning in 1955. Called ‘Zenith Space Command,’ the remote control went into production in the fall of 1956.
The original Space Command remote control had an elaborate receiver in the TV set. Six additional vacuum tubes were needed to pick up and process the signals and this made it expensive. Although adding the remote control system increased the price of the TV set by about 30 percent, it was a technical success and was adopted in later years by other manufacturers.
In the early 1960s, solid-state circuitry (i.e, transistors) began to replace vacuum tubes. Hand-held, battery-powered control units could now be designed to generate the inaudible sound electronically. In this modified form, Dr. Adler's ultrasonic remote control invention lasted through the early 1980s, a quarter century from its inception.
Remote technology had moved to infrared by the early 1980s, this works by using a low frequency light beam, so low that the human eye cannot see it, but which can be detected by a receiver in the TV. Zenith’s development of cable-compatible tuning and teletext technologies greatly enhancing the capabilities and uses for infrared TV remotes.
Today, the remote control is a standard feature on numerous consumer electronic products. The device’s only drawback is when it is mislaid the male species goes into panic mode and unable to function properly.