As I sit and write my TV is in front of me. It is not on because our controller has recently died, and the thought of actually standing up to turn the TV on seems like too much of an effort right now! For those who blame the sofa for the laziness and obesity epidemics in our world today, try looking to our much loved television controller instead…….
The Lazy Bones
Though television did not really enter most our homes until the early 1950s, the idea of a useful electronic remote control had been around for a while. In 1939 Philco had brought out a ‘Mystery’ Radio controller box that could be connected by wire to your radio to adjust the volume and tuning. It was just a giant dial on top of a wooden box but it was pretty popular and also not unique as other companies had also produced wired adjustors that worked with each of their sets prior to the Mystery box. With the advent of Television a similar lazy controller seemed a natural accessory to invent.
The first dedicated TV remote control was aptly called the ‘Lazy Bones’ and was produced and sold by the American firm Zenith between 1950-55. It was basically two buttons on a wire that could be plugged into one of their TV sets to remotely change the channel as well as turn the set on or off. The controller ran a motor in the TV which adjusted the tuning dial. There was no great technical wizardry, but amazingly the marketing people were still able to charge $30 for it (on top of the price of a TV set) and it seemed to sell well. In today’s money that would equal spending $300 just on your remote control- ouch! The biggest problem though was the annoying wire trailing across your living room and causing a trip hazard. Therefore the designers at Zenith were set the task to come up with a wireless solution instead.
In 1955 Zenith was to release the world’s first wireless TV remote control called the ‘Flash-Matic’. It was designed by an engineer called Eugene Polly and though the hand-held unit was little more than a small green flash-light, by ingeniously building light sensors into the corners of the TV, the viewer could turn the set on or off and adjust the channels. While the invention seemed a clever idea in principle, in reality the sensors were far too sensitive and ambient light in the room could also trip the sensors by mistake.
Therefore Zenith went back to the drawing boards. They liked the idea of using radio waves but because these could travel through walls and over long distances, they were worried your neighbour might inadvertently be able to control your set. Audible sound waves were also discussed, but again they worried some people might get annoyed by its pitch. In the end an engineer named Robert Adler came up with an ingenious solution that used ultra-sonic (inaudible) sound waves instead.
The Space Command
In 1956 the ‘Space Command 200’ was unveiled. It had two buttons which when each pressed would cause two rods of metal to hit each other. By adjusting the rod length on each button this created different tones which a sensor on the front of the TV set would be able to interpret. The unit was both clever and cost effective as it did not need batteries to work. Soon a 3 then 4 button version emerged to add even more variables for the viewer. The only down side was just like the Flash-Matic, the Space Command came with glitches. Ambient noise (this time such as the jingling of coins in a pocket) could notoriously confuse the TV, but since the controllers were cheap and reliable, Zenith kept on using them. The Zenith 600 of 1965 was introduced to cater for the brand new and exciting colour TVs and were the first to allow the viewer to adjust the tone of the screen.
Space Command had an impressively long run lasting nearly 25 years in active service. They were only finally superseded by the new Infra-red technology of the early 1980s. Infra-red was a natural development, but unlike its predecessors did not suffer from any external interference. Suddenly the number of functions a controller could handle became almost endless and TV remotes of the 1980s and 90s became synonymous with hundreds of buttons that could each control ‘something’. We had entered a new world where we no longer had to touch the TV again once it was out of the box, and putting the controller buttons on the set itself now seemed somewhat redundant…….The age of the Couch Potato was truly born!