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Who Invented The First TV Remote Control and When Was It Invented?

Updated on January 22, 2017

Dear Old Dad

For years I thought it was my own father that invented remote control technology. He had three remote controls, all of them voice activated. Very high tech. He didn't even need to say the channel number. He would simply say " Put on Star Trek.", and, like magic, it would appear. He also had a potato chip command, and a lawn mowing command. Incredible technology!

Ok, so it wasn't exactly magic. Being the eldest of these remotes, it was usually me who hauled myself off the couch to change the channel or do whatever errand he required.

Life in the dark ages

I recently discovered that my own children had no idea that there was life before remote controls. Or cable tv, for that matter. Oh, the horror on their faces when I told them of the old days. Only a few tv channels, that you had to select manually, and they all went off the air at midnight! AAAH! I think they actually had nightmares that night.

I decided it was time to teach them ( and myself, for that matter) about the origins of some of the devices that we have come to take for granted in our lives.

The First TV Remote Control

In the late 1940s, Eugene McDonald jr., founder and president of Zenith Radio corporation, thought that television ( brand new technology in those days) would be much improved if viewers did not have to watch so many commercials. Apparently commercials were the bane of television viewing from the very beginning.

Mr. McDonald charged his team of engineers with developing a way to mute annoying ads. In a show of lateral thinking, they did him proud. In 1950 the Lazy Bones remote control was introduced to the public. Rather than simply muting the commercials, the new device could actually change the channel from the comfort of your sofa.

The Lazy Bones consisted of a handheld control attached to a cable. The cable was, in turn, connected to an electric motor on the tv. The motor could turn the tuner clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on which button you pushed. There was also a power button for turning the set on and off.

The revolutionary device was wildly popular at first. But consumers soon started to complain about the trip hazard posed by the cable. Mr. McDonald wasn't completely satisfied, either. Lazy Bones was indeed innovative, but it still did not mute commercials. Sure you could change the channel, but you would find the commercials on the next channel as well. Back to the drawing board.

Eugene Polley With His Zenith Flashmatic TV Remote Control.
Eugene Polley With His Zenith Flashmatic TV Remote Control.

The First Wireless TV Remote Control

In 1955, Eugene Polley, also working for Zenith, devised the Flashmatic. Polley placed photo cells in the corners of the television. These were activated with a very directional flashlight. These sensors controlled the power, rotated the tuner dial, and, at long last, turned the sound on and off. The first mute button!

About 30,000 Flashmatics sold in the first year. It was soon discovered, though, that direct sunlight and other light-emitting devices could inadvertantly activate these sensors.McDonald knew they were on the right track, so he called for an even better design.

Space Command Remote Control
Space Command Remote Control

The Real Deal

Zenith engineer, Dr. Robert Adler harnessed ultrasonics to create the first truly practical wireless remote. He has since been touted throughout the industry as the father of remote control technology, although Polley tends to disagree.

The Zenith Space Command remote control was introduced in 1956. A simple handheld unit, it was similar to the ones we know today. Inside were four small aluminum rods cut to different lengths which, when struck, would emit a specific sound frequency. The striking was accomplished by small hammers connected to springs, which were triggered by four control buttons. The buttons controlled the power, volume on and off, and channel up and down. It did have one drawback. It was occasionally known to respond to other metallic sounds, like jingling keys, or dog tags.

The sound made by the tiny hammers striking the rods gave birth to the nickname that would endure for generations. Perhaps you are one of the millions of people that refer to your remote as the "clicker".

This was an expensive feature, as it required a special receiver to be added to the tv. Adding as much as 30 percent to the price of a set, it still sold like crazy. It persevered in various forms for 25 years, until the early eighties, when infrared came on the scene.

As this technology proliferates, more and more uses are being brought forth.Today, you would be hard pressed to find a tv for which a remote control is not included as standard equipment. Even beyond the standard applications for tv, dvd players, etc., everyday appliances and devices have gone remote. Clickers that currently clutter my home include those for box fans, ceiling fans, space heaters, the list is a long one. There are water faucets that turn on when you approach, and even toilets that flush themselves when you leave. I saw a man on television that actually designed a remote control refrigerator that would throw a beer to him by remote control.

Spoiled Is As Spoiled Does

I have tried to reject remote control proliferation, as I believe it has spoiled us and it promotes laziness. If not for my constant urging, my childrens' primary source of exercize would come in the form of searching for their lost clickers.

I could go on for hours on the subject, but I need to find the remote starter for my car, so that I can be off to work!

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