From Tesla to Zenith, the Birth of Television Remote Controls

Nikola Tesla, circa 1890.

The remote control has become a device that is equal parts practical and frustrating. Many gripe that their remotes have too many buttons and are easily misplaced, and it’s inconvenient to sit down in a dark room and realize that the remote’s beneath you and you unwittingly changed the channel. Of course, it’s almost impossible to consider what the television viewing experience would be without a remote control. We’d much rather snoop around for that elusive plastic housing and its myriad of unused buttons than stand and walk to our television sets every time we want to change the channel or the volume.

December 17th of this year marks the 57th anniversary of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s issue of a seminal patent in the field of television remote controls. Today, we want to feature the story behind the development of perhaps the earliest wireless technology to enter the American home. Greater than 95 percent of American households own a television set, although that percentage has dropped in recent years. As a result, television remote controls have enjoyed an incredible rate of permeation into the American household; as of 2012, Americans were using approximately 335 million TV remotes, a rate of about three per household.

The ability to control devices through the transmission of a wireless signal was first demonstrated over a century ago but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the technique would be developed for television, the most successful embodiment of the remote control to date. In some ways, the television remote control introduced the American household to the idea of a connected home with appliances responding to user commands from a distance.



Early Days in Remote Control Technology

At the Electrical Exhibition of 1898 in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Nikola Tesla demonstrated the use of a remote control device that commanded a four-foot long boat without any wires connecting the two. Marconi’s experiments in telegraphy the previous year notwithstanding, this was a scientific marvel and a much more active use of wireless technologies than sending a message. The battery-powered craft was energized by switches that were controlled by radio waves sent from Tesla’s remote.

Tesla’s technological innovation above can be seen in greater detail within U.S. Patent No. 613809, entitled Method of and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles. Issued to Tesla in November 1898, it claims an improvement in the art of controlling the operation of a vessel or vehicle by producing and conveying waves to the apparatus which actuate the propelling engine, steering and other mechanisms. Tesla mused that his invention would have commercial, scientific and engineering applications, envisioning uses from whale hunting to delivering mail cargo, but he thought that “the greatest value of my invention will result from its effect upon warfare and armaments, for by reason of its certain and unlimited destructiveness it will tend to bring about and maintain permanent peace among nations.” It’s interesting to note that this didn’t play out as Tesla anticipated. The earliest combat use of wirelessly controlled weapons by the American military dates to the early 2000s and projects to developed unmanned weaponry throughout the years typically focused on flying vehicles; there are reports of the German army utilizing remote-controlled boats during combat as far back as World War I.

Radio, one of the first consumer electronic appliances that found widespread appeal in American homes, was another target of early remote control technologies. In 1939, radio appliance manufacturer Philco unveiled the first wireless remote control for radios, which the company called the “Mystery Control.” The remote sent a radio signal at a frequency between 350 and 400 kilohertz to the radio receiver which processed the signal as a command to turn the set off, adjust the volume or switch to one of eight preset stations. Remote controls for radios had been developed by other manufacturers, but Philco released the first truly wireless remote to the market.


Zenith and the Birth of Television Remote Controls 

The development of the television remote control has as much to do with American consumers trying to escape the scourge of constant advertisement as it does with the desire to change the channel without getting up. Zenith, a Chicago-based manufacturer of televisions and radios, was responsible for most of the early major developments in TV remotes. In 1950, the company released its “Lazy Bones” remote control, which advertisements touted as providing “complete automatic program selection in the palm of your hand… from anywhere in the room.” As the ad linked above will show readers, the Lazy Bones maintained a wired connection with the television. Lazy Bones users pushed buttons on the remote that operated a motor within the television set which rotated the tuner. This device was the target of a lot of customer complaints as it was easy to trip on the wire connecting the remote control to the TV.

The next iteration of Zenith’s remote control technology was wireless and advertisements focused on its ability to “shut off long, annoying commercials.” The Flash-Matic remote control was introduced by Zenith in 1955 and controlled television sets by shining a beam of light generated by the Flash-Matic on any of four photo cells located in each corner of the television screen. These photo cells allowed users to turn the TV set on or off, change the channel or mute the sound. The Flash-Matic was designed to resemble a small firearm and was invented by Zenith engineer Eugene J. Polley.

From U.S. Patent No. 2903575, titled “Control System.”

Polley’s invention was protected in September 1959 with the issuance of U.S. Patent No. 2903575, issued under the title Control System. The patent claimed a system responsive to pulses of wave energy from a controllable remote source for controlling a wave-signal receiver including a station selector circuit, an audio circuit and a power supply circuit. The wireless nature of this technology was specifically intended to reduce the risk of tripping on wires laying across an entertainment room floor and reduce the unattractive appearance of wires. One major drawback to the Flash-Matic system was that the photo cells on the television set could be operated unintentionally if the set was placed in direct sunlight.

The Flash-Matic was successful despite its shortcomings, but Zenith was still interested in improving the wireless system. What was desired was a device that didn’t require a battery, was less prone to interference than remotes utilizing radio waves and was more reliable than the Flash-Matic. The answer to these dilemmas would be solved the following year as the brainchild of Zenith engineer Robert Adler, whose contributions to wireless remote control technologies would lead the industry for a quarter of a century, and eventually earn him a spot in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Adler’s novel idea was to utilize ultrasonics, or high-frequency sound beyond the range of normal human hearing. The boxy Space Command remote released by Zenith had four buttons, one each for power, tune down, tune up and mute. Each button triggered a hammer strike on a piece of aluminum that resonated at different frequencies. The high-frequency signals were picked up by a receiver within the television set that alone required an additional six vacuum tubes, adding 30 percent to the overall cost of building the television set.

From U.S. Patent No. 2817025, titled “Control System.”

December 17th marks the anniversary date for the issue of U.S. Patent No. 2817025, also titled Control System. The patent protected a control system adapted for remote actuation by an ultrasonic signal of predetermined minimum amplitude and duration within a predetermined restricted frequency range for controlling an electrical circuit. The innovation was designed to have a simple construction and overcome obstacles to the use of acoustic control systems which were subject to false triggering from extraneous acoustic signals.

Even if the ultrasound frequency produced by the remote control was too high for users to hear, the hammer contact on the aluminum within the remote made a sound that led to the colloquial use of “clicker” to refer to the Space Command and following ultrasound remote controls. There were some issues that customers reported about the television receiver responding to ultrasound frequencies created by the jangling of keys or coins in a pocket, but these problems occurred sparingly.

This period of invention would prove to be fruitful for both Polley and Adler, although history seems to have sided more strongly with Adler, a 2008 inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. However, if you look at the filing dates of the patents mentioned above, Polley’s ‘575 patent was filed in 1955, while Adler’s was filed in 1956. Regardless, both men have been rightfully celebrated for their roles, including both being Emmy Award-winning inventors.  Polley and Adler were honored in 1997 by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for their contributions in pioneering wireless remote control development. Both of the men also received recognition from the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society later on in their lives.


Developments in Remote Controls: Infrared Signals and Way More Than Four Buttons

By 1956, 70 percent of American households had television sets. However, by 1979 only 17 percent of American households had a remote control to operate their sets. The Space Command and other remotes were convenient but a luxury that most television owners didn’t necessarily need.

The 1980s would change much of the landscape of television entertainment, especially as a result of the increase of cable television programming. VCRs and other equipment turned television sets into complex multicomponent systems that were designed to interface with recorded video media, multichannel programming and video game systems. Consumers were now seeking out remotes that were capable of managing the connections between these various components.

Infrared would be the technology that ultimately usurped ultrasonic for the next generation of wireless remote controls. First introduced by Canadian company Viewstar, infrared allowed remote controls to be programmed to transmit more complex commands to the television set. This would quickly be followed by the development of universal remote controls as device manufacturers sought to create a consumer electronic device capable of uniting all of the devices in a home entertainment system under the control of a single remote. In 1985, Magnavox released a universal remote designed to imitate the control codes for a variety of components built by different manufacturers. Steve Wozniak, one of the cofounders of Apple, spearheaded the development of the Controller of Remote Equipment (CORE) in 1987 under the umbrella of his startup CL 9 company. The device was intended to control multiple home electronics appliances, including television sets, VCRs and stereos, but was never commercially successful. American consumers had a hard time accepting a remote control device that was often required to be programmed to interact with other home electronics.

Today, our television sets can provide an incredible array of video services. Many televisions are designed to connect with a wide array of peripheral equipment, making many of us very familiar with the “Source” button on our remotes. The number of buttons on remote control devices has exploded to accommodate this. The smart television sets being developed now, which offer an incredible amount of Internet-based television service through a collection of apps, will likely make viewers even more dependent upon their remote control as the television begins to evolve into a computer entertainment console. Of course, the development of gesture based systems for controlling the television and other home appliances could make the plastic clicker obsolete. In either case, the work of Zenith and engineers Adler and Polley helped launch many generations of a technology which has, along with the television it controls, become a cultural touchstone in American living rooms from coast to coast.


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