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Six Decades of Channel Surfing

Channel surfing was born more than six decades ago. The first TV remote control, called the “Lazy Bones,” was developed in 1950 by Zenith (then known as Zenith Radio Corporation and now a wholly owned subsidiary of LG Electronics USA).

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.

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 developing and promoting the concept of commercial-free subscription television, McDonald yearned for a way to mute the sound of commercials.

Flash-Matic: The First Wireless TV Remote

Zenith engineer Eugene J. Polley invented the “Flash-Matic,” which represented the industry’s first wireless TV remote. Introduced in 1955, Flash-Matic 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 counter-clockwise.

Flash-Matic pioneered the concept of wireless TV remote control, although it 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

Commander McDonald loved the concepts proven by Polley’s Flash-Matic and directed his engineers to explore other technologies for the next generation. 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.

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.

Next Generations: 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 that stretched a spring and then released it so that a small hammer would strike the end of the aluminum rod.

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.

The ultrasonic 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.

In the early 1960s, solid-state circuitry (i.e., transistors) began to replace vacuum tubes. Handheld, 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 this Zenith innovation.

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 for infrared TV remotes.

In recognition for their visionary work, remote control co-inventors Adler and Polley jointly received Zenith’s Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1997 for “Pioneering Development of Wireless Remote Controls for Consumer Television.”   Broadcasting & Cable Magazine recognized “their groundbreaking contribution to television viewing – indeed, to the use of so many electronic devices” with the B&C Technology Leadership Award in 2006.

Polley, who died on May 20, 2012 at age 96, was honored in 2009 with the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society’s highest technical honor, the Masaru Ibuka Consumer Electronics Award.  Adler, who died on Feb. 15, 2007, at age 93, received the IEEE Consumer Electronics Outstanding Achievement Award and Inventor-of-the-Year Award from George Washington University’s Patent, Trademark and Copyright Research Institute, among other honors.

Their legacy continues today. Wireless remote control is now a standard feature on virtually all consumer electronics products, including TVs, DVD players and recorders, VCRs, cable and satellite boxes, and home audio receivers, to name a few.