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Fascinating facts about the invention of  Wireless
TV Remote Control
by Robert Adler in 1956.
REMOTE CONTROL
AT A GLANCE:
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. In 1956, 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 STORY
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DID YOU KNOW?
Invention: TV remote control in 1956
Remote control photo courtesy Zenith Corporation
Function: noun
Definition: A remote control is an electronic device used for the remote operation of a machine. As in a remote control for a television.
  Over 9 million Adler remotes were sold
Inventor: Robert Adler
Robert Adler photo courtesy IEEE History Center
Criteria: First to patent. First practical.
Birth: December 4, 1913 in Vienna, Austria
Death: February15 in Boise, Idaho
Nationality: Austrian
Milestones:
1893 An remote control was described by Nikola Tesla, in his patent, U.S. Patent 613809
1950
The first TV remote control, called "Lazy Bones," was developed iby Zenith
1955
Zenith engineer Eugene Polley invented the "Flashmatic," the industry's first wireless TV remote
1956 Robert Adler's  "Zenith Space Command," remote control went into production

1980
By the early 1980s, the industry moved to infrared,
ARYs: remote control, TV remote control, Robert Adler, Zenith,
Eugene Polley, Flashmatic, Zenith Space Command, history, invention, story, facts, biography, inventor.
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 WW I.  Radio controlled bombs and other remote control weapons were used in WW II.

Once the wars were over, United States scientists experimented to find nonmilitary uses for the remote control.  In the late 1940’s automatic garage door openers were invented, and in the 1950’s the first TV remote controls were used.

First TV Remote Control:
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.  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.

Flashmatic: The First Wireless TV Remote
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 had 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.

Development Challenges
Zenith management loved the concepts proven by Polley's Flashmatic and directed his 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.

The Birth of Space Command
Zenith's Dr. Robert Adler suggested using "ultrasonics," 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 ultrasonics technology in the home as a new approach for a remote control.

The transmitter used no batteries; it was built around aluminum 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 aluminum 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.

Quarter Century of Ultrasonic Remotes
The original Space Command remote control was expensive because an elaborate receiver in the TV set, using six additional vacuum tubes, was needed to pick up and process the signals. 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.

Today's Infrared Remote Controls
By the early 1980s, the industry moved to infrared, or IR, remote technology. The IR remote 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 in the 1980s greatly enhanced the capabilities and uses for infrared TV remotes.

Today, remote control is a standard feature on other consumer electronics products, including VCRs, cable and satellite boxes, digital video disc players and home audio receivers. And the most sophisticated TV sets have remotes with as many as 50 buttons.

Zenith developed the world's first wireless trackball TV remote control, called Z-Trak. The remote works like a computer mouse - click the ball and a cursor appears on the TV screen. Roll the ball and the cursor activates control menus hidden in different corners of the screen. Then, activate something from those menus - bass, treble, contrast, color temperature, channel... whatever.

Manufacturers used to only make remote controls that operated one TV set.  However, they are now making universal remote controls that can operate any TV set.  Experts predict that someday remote controls will control almost every device in the home.

Video games
Most video game consoles used wired controllers until recently, mainly because of the difficulty involved in playing the game while keeping the infrared transmitter pointed at the console. Some wireless controllers were produced by third parties, in most cases using a radio link instead of infrared. The first official wireless controller was the radio waves technology Wavebird for Nintendo Gamecube. After that wireless controllers became standard for the next/current generation of consoles, including the Xbox 360, the PS3 and Wii.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
Robert Adler Biogrpahy    from The Great Idea Finder
Invention of the Television   from The Great Idea Finder
History of Household Items    from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Science & Technology (4th Ed)
by Sybil P. Parker (Editor) / Hardcover - 2450 pages / McGraw Hill Text - 1998
This definitive reference offers you concise, authoritative, and up-to-date coverage of every major field of science and technology. In articles authored by scientists and engineers at the forefront of their fields, Including 19 Nobel Prize winners.

ON THE SCREEN:
Digi-tech
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00
See how the computing capacity of World-War II era room-sized computers is now surpassed by hand-held devices; visit Zenith to see a side-by-side comparison of regular television and HDTV; discover how a Cold War era NASA program is transforming personal photography, and get the inside story about MP3s.

Household Wonders  
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00
HOUSEHOLD WONDERS tells the story of seven taken-for-granted inventions that make modern life comfy, fast and clean: the stove, sewing machine, refrigerator, air conditioner, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, toaster and mixer.

ON THE WEB:
Invention Dimension - Inventor of the Week
Celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards to inspire a new generation of American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Featured Rober Adler for his invention of the TV wireless remote technology in April, 1999.
(URL: web.mit.edu/invent/www/inventorsA-H/adler.html)

Zenith Remote Control
In 1956 Zenith introduced "Space Command," the first practical wireless remote control, which revolutionized TV tuning worldwide (1956).
(URL: www.zenith.com)

History of the Remote Control
A ThinkQuest project personal web site.

(URL: www.modellbahnott.com/tqpage/ihistory.html)
CE Hall of Fame
The creator of the first practical wireless TV remote control, Dr. Robert Adler, paved the way for TV viewers to become couch potatoes more than 40 years ago. From the Consumer Electronis Association. Adler has been granted more than 150 U.S. Patents and has published over 45 technical papers and articles. He was elected Fellow of the IEEE in 1951 "for his development of transmission and detection devices for frequency modulated signals and of electro-mechanical filter systems."
(URL: www.ce.org/Events/Awards/348.asp)
Remote Control of Your Entire Home
Imagine a remote control that can also control lights, the temperature, drapes, the front door lock...in fact, virtually anything electrical.
(URL: www.smarthome.com/remote_entire_home.html)
Robert Adler Biography
During World War II he worked on high- frequency magnetostrictive oscillators. Remote control of television receivers by an ultrasonic gong grew out of this work.
(URL: www.ieee.org/web/aboutus/history_center/biography/adler.html)


HOW IT WORKS:
Hard Wired: The 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 counterclockwise, 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.

Flashmatic: Operated by means of four photo cells, one in each corner of the TV cabinet around the screen. The viewer used a highly directional flashlight to activate the four control functions, which turned the tuner clockwise and counter-clockwise and which turned the sound and power on and off.

Ultrasonic:  The "ultrasonics," that is, high-frequency sound, beyond the range of human hearing. The original Space Command remote control was expensive because an elaborate receiver in the TV set, using six additional vacuum tubes, was needed to pick up and process the signals. 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.

Infrared: The IR remote 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.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • In 1999, more than 99 percent of all TV sets and 100 percent of all VCRs sold in the U.S. are equipped with remote control.
  • More than 9 million ultrasonic remote control TVs were sold by the industry during the 25-year reign of Dr. Adler's invention.
  • Zenith sales people were against using batteries in the remote control. In those days, batteries were used primarily in flashlights. If the battery went dead, the sales staff said, the customer might think something was wrong with the TV.
  • Early remote controls were expensive because an elaborate receiver in the TV set, using six additional vacuum tubes, was needed to pick up and process the signals. Adding a remote control system increased the price of the TV set by about 30 percent.
  • Zenith's Dr. Rober Adler has more than 180 patents.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page revised December 5, 2006.
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