An Abridged History (and the Future) of Home Control

Chapter 2– TV Goes Mobile

When TV really took off, there were few channels and even fewer adjustments. There was mostly OFF, ON, VOLUME, and CHANNEL. There was one TV, in the living room, and if Dad wanted to change the channel, he got up and did it. The first TV remote control was Dad telling Junior to do it, but not for long. Not everyone had a junior, after all.

So in 1950, building on wartime research and peacetime consumerism, Zenith introduced the first TV remote control. Called the “Lazy-Bones”, it could turn the TV on and change channels. It was wired to the TV and a motorized unit physically rotated the tuner knob. It is said that the motivation at Zenith was a management-level distaste for advertising on TV and an effort to undermine the commercial broadcasting model. If enough people could block the commercials, surely they would go out of style.

The Lazy-Bones tether was annoying and a hazard to household traffic, so in 1955 Zenith replaced it with the first-ever wireless remote, futuristically called the “Flash-Matic”. It operated by means of four photocells, one in each corner of the TV screen. A ray-gun styled flashlight activated the four control functions, which turned the TV and sound on and off and turned the channel tuner. However, the Flash-Matic had many problems working on sunny days or in brightly lit rooms.

Undaunted, Zenith moved from light to sound in 1956 with the "Space Command" remote control. It had little rod-shaped bells inside, struck by a small spring-loaded hammer when the button was pushed. At the TV set, a microphone listened for the frequency of the ringing and triggered the desired action – mostly. If there was too much noise, the bell would not be heard, or worse, the noises would trigger undesired actions. The worst cases were pet owners who were chagrined by new channels appearing whenever their dog scratched and his collar tags jingled. And the device added about 30% to the cost of the set!

The noise made by these early mechanical remotes also gave them the nickname that has endured despite the eventual elimination of any sound at all - "the clicker."

Since it was frequently necessary to adjust the antenna and fine tuning anyway, the next big idea came from Philco within their “Predicta” line of TVs in the late 1950’s. They put the picture tube on a tether and the rest of the TV next to your chair, at easy reach. This revolutionary design was doomed by the short and thick cable needed to route the high voltages to the “remote” screen and the inability to pull the same trick with bulkier color picture tubes. Despite looking like the future, these units quickly fell out of favor. They are now valuable as kitschy collector items.

Hand-held wireless remote controls were variations on the Space Command theme in the early 60’s, though functions remained few. As color TV became the norm but good color reception was still touchy, users needed to tweak color and hue almost endlessly, as well as to diddle with the fine tuning. The next refinement of remote controls – again by Zenith - eliminated physical bells and used near-inaudible high frequency sounds generated by new transistor circuits. Electronically generated tones could be specific enough to have fewer errors and more functions. Despite annoying children and pets who could hear the high-pitched whistle sounds, this design held sway through the 70’s, until the arrival of infra-red communications brought an end to acoustic remotes.

The precise control of “IR” remotes, combined with the change to automatic fine tuning and color adjustment made this design the standard for nearly everything built since the early ‘80s. The remote and the TV must have an unobstructed line-of-sight between them because the communication is again optical, and strong daylight can make commands fail, but it works well for most purposes. By 1985 and ever since, more TV’s were sold with remote controls than without.

More than just sowing the seeds of couch-potatoes, remote controls have changed the TV programming and advertising industry - but not in the way the early Zenith management hoped. Since relief from boring, annoying, or just unstimulating visions is just a click away for nearly everyone, the pressure is enormous to keep every moment as riveting as possible. Quick-cut scenes, one program segueing into the next, elimination of opening themes, shorter and more visually striking commercials, and increased integration of advertising and program content ("Product Placement") are all fallout of the remote control-assisted short attention span.

History of Remote Control -Introduction
Chapter 1 – From Communications to Music
This Chapter – TV goes Mobile

Chapter 3 – One Remote, Two Remote, Three Remote, Four…
Chapter 4 – Automation Platforms – The Rise of the Machines
Chapter 5 – The Next Generation – User and Content Centric Control
Chapter 6 – Multi-zone and Theater Convergence


Copyright 2007 by GP Systems, Inc.