Channel surfing was born five decades ago. 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 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.
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.
Commander Eugene F. McDonald Jr., Zenith's late founder-president,
believed TV viewers would not tolerate commercials and was convinced
that sooner or later commercial television would collapse. While waiting
for the development of commercial-free subscription television, McDonald
yearned for a wireless remote control that would mute the sound of
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 screen. The viewer used a highly directional flashlight to
activate the four control functions, which turned the picture and sound
on and off and changed channels by turning the tuner dial clockwise and
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.
Commander McDonald 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
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
Regardless of the specific system chosen, 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. If
the remote control didn't emit light or show any other visible sign of
functioning, people would think it was broken once the batteries died.
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 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 end of the aluminum
The device was developed quickly, with the design phase beginning in
1955. Called "Zenith Space Command," the remote went into production in
the fall of 1956, becoming the first practical wireless remote control
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
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.
More than 9 million ultrasonic remote control TVs were sold by the
industry during the 25-year reign of Dr. Adler's invention.
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. In 2000, more than 99
percent of all TV sets and 100 percent of all VCRs and DVD players sold
in the United States are equipped with remote control.