Who Invented the TV Remote Control?

You may think I’m old, but do you remember the Married… With Childen episode in which Peg took Al’s TV remote control to get what she wants from him? I don’t know why it’s one of those that I keep remembering. Maybe I feel lazy each time I’m using my remote. It’s not like I have a choice, no TV works without one nowadays. Well, this introduction is just to get us to talk about the subject of this article:

Who Created the TV Remote Control?

In the beginning, there was no television remote control. We had to get up and change channels by using the button on the box. It’s a good thing that there were almost no channel. Today, as I was saying, it’s another story and we couldn’t see it without the remote to switch on the TV–unless you can find it on a streaming service! Maybe the TV remote control was a luxury at some point, but it became part of our lives.

It began in 1950 when the Zenith Radio Corporation made a groundbreaking advancement with the introduction of the first remote control intended for television use. Dubbed the “Lazy Bones,” this remote control was not wireless but connected to the television via a cumbersome cable. Although it allowed users to turn the TV on and off and change channels, the cord proved to be a major inconvenience, causing people to trip over it.

Flashmatic: The Wireless Revolution

The next significant leap forward came rapidly. In 1955, Zenith engineer Eugene Polley developed the “Flashmatic,” the first wireless remote control. The Flashmatic operated by using four photoelectric cells, one placed in each corner of the TV screen. Users would point a directional flashlight at the desired cell to activate the corresponding control function, such as turning the picture and sound on or off, and changing channels. However, the Flashmatic had its limitations, as it could be prone to interference from sunlight, which occasionally caused channels to change randomly.

In 1955, Zenith engineer Eugene Polley developed the “Flashmatic,” the first wireless remote control

The following year, another Zenith engineer, Robert Adler designed the “Zenith Space Command.” This remote control relied on ultrasonic waves, a significant advancement in remote control technology that set the standard for the next 25 years. The Space Command transmitter contained four lightweight aluminum rods that emitted high-frequency sounds when struck at one end. Each rod produced a different sound that controlled a receiver unit built into the television. While the initial versions of the Space Command were expensive due to their vacuum tube technology, the introduction of transistors in the early 1960s made remote controls smaller and more affordable.

TV Remote Control Became Infrared

Ultrasonic waves had their time and it ended during the early 1980s as the industry standard shifted toward infrared devices. Offering more reliable and efficient communication between the remote control and the TV, the infrared technology was also cheaper to produce. Infrared remotes used light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to transmit signals in the infrared spectrum, which were then detected by receivers in the television.

It was also useful to deal with the new additional controls required for another technology that changed the television: Teletext. In 1974, the BBC introduced the Ceefax teletext service, the first interactive television service in the world (it ended 38 years later). It required numeric buttons for selecting specific pages, so BBC engineers collaborated with television manufacturers to create prototypes that could handle these expanded functions. This led to the development of remote controls capable of controlling various television settings in addition to Teletext functionality.

The TV Remote Control’s Evolution Continues

Since the introduction of infrared remote controls, technological advancements have continued to enhance their capabilities. The adoption of digital signals, the integration of semiconductor memory, and the introduction of universal remotes capable of controlling multiple devices have all contributed to the evolution of the TV remote control.

Today, we have an array of sophisticated remote controls with features like voice control, touch screens, and even smartphone apps that allow us to control our TVs and other entertainment devices with ease. And we can’t do without them.

Interested in television-related articles? I previously wrote about the young television pioneer Philo Farnsworth, the invention of television, the canned laughter, and the VHS.

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