The surprising origins of the TV remote

By Stephen Dowling 31 August 2018

It began with something TV viewers of the 21st Century can still identify with – anger over the adverts.

In the 1950s in the US, Zenith Electronics president Eugene F McDonald gave the company’s engineers a challenge: he hated having to sit through adverts. He wanted a device that could let him mute them, or skip to another channel (…where hopefully something other than adverts were playing).

The remote control as we know it was born.

McDonald’s wish spawned a revolution, changing the way we watched television – less as a passive observer, more a ruthless overseer. If we didn’t like what we saw, a new channel was the flick of a switch away.

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Zenith’s game-changing device was called the Flashmatic, designed by an engineer called Eugene Polley and released in 1955.

“He was not an electrical engineer, but a mechanical engineer,” says John Taylor, the in-house historian for Zenith and a press director at its parent company LG, of Polley. “So the device was largely mechanical.”

There had been devices that could change TV channels before, but these had been attached to the television itself – the remote connected by an umbilical cord. The most famous of these was Zenith’s own Lazy-Bones. It allowed the user to turn the TV on or off and change channels – but not mute those pesky commercials.

The Flashmatic was completely free of the TV set. It used “a directional light source with a sensor in each corner of the TV screen”, says Taylor. “This allowed the viewer to mute the sound, turn the channel over to the left or the right, all by flashing the button at the screen.”

In keeping with the 1950s preoccupation with space and modern design, the Flashmatic looked like something Flash Gordon might use against some otherworldly threat. “This was the era of Sputnik and Buck Rogers,” says Taylor. “It looks like a little green ray gun.”

There was one big problem with Zenith’s space-age contraption, however. Those four sensors in the corner were sensitive to more than just the light being zapped from the TV watcher’s hand. “Depending on where your TV was located in your lounge, as the Sun came up it might actually turn on the TV or change the channels,” says Taylor.

Adler’s invention did away with the zapping light rays of the Flashmatic

What might have looked like a child’s toy also came with a very adult price tag. “The Flashmatic added $100 on to the price of a television set,” Taylor says, “and that’s at a time when you could buy a car for $600.”

Zenith went back to the drawing board – this time the drawing board of one of its electrical engineers, a physicist named Robert Adler.

Adler’s invention got rid of the zapping light rays of the Flashmatic. He would have to come up with a new way for the remote to talk to the TV.

One idea was radio waves, but that was dismissed early on, says Taylor. “If you were in an apartment building, you might start changing the channel on the TV in the next room as well as your own.”

Adler’s decision? Use sound. The new Zenith remote, called the Space Command, was an ultrasonic remote that used hammers hitting aluminium rods within the remote. These rang at certain frequencies – forcing the television to turn on or off, changing the channel or muting or un-muting the sound.

Culture writer Steven Beschloss says remotes such as the Space Command are elegant and simple. “Key to their appeal, I think, is their clarity of purpose. They only had a few functions and the user could enjoy the simple, easy operation. It’s a long way from many of our more complicated remotes of today.”

The frequencies used in remotes like the Space Command were too high for the human ear to pick up, though they could be discernible to animals such as dogs and cats

The Space Command looked like a Star Trek prop, with just four protruding buttons – worlds away from today’s devices which might crowd several dozen onto a slim rectangle of plastic. The buttons struck the rods with a nearly whisper-quiet sound (it earned the nickname ‘The Clicker’) but it ushered in the era of ultrasound remotes – a method used well into the 1980s.

The frequencies used in remotes like the Space Command were too high for the human ear to pick up, though they could be discernible to animals such as dogs and cats. (I can remember my older brother and sister chasing my grandparents’ cats around the house with just such a device.) Taylor says that there was an apocryphal story at Zenith that during testing, one female lab assistant flinched every time the device was tested, due to her keen sense of hearing.

TV remotes had no more than a handful of buttons until the mid-1970s. In fact, it was the BBC which partly created the need for a more complicated device. In 1974, it launched Ceefax – a text-based service which used spare capacity in the analogue TV frequencies – in the UK. It was, however, impossible for most TV viewers to call up the pages of news, sports and financial information using a normal remote.

A new controller had to be created, one that would have space for a number keypad (to call up the different page numbers) and to switch between the text service and normal TV. The remote as we know it was beginning to take shape.

The remotes, like the cable systems themselves, became more difficult to deal with – Steve Beschloss

Enter the next phase of the TV remote. The increasing need for more and more functions led the designers to look for a different way of communicating with the TV set. They found the step up via infra-red light. Suddenly the remote you used became whisper-quiet (and the nickname ‘The Clicker’ became redundant).

But through the 1980s and 90s, with the rise of cable TV and the explosion of ancillary devices such as video recorders, DVD players and games consoles, the remote became… rather bloated.

In a piece for Slate back in 2015, the writer mulled over the sudden proliferation of buttons on a device that used to be a time-saver. “There's an excess of buttons… 92 of them, to be exact, arranged on my nightstand in rubbery rows, seven different colours' worth, with overlapping labels that range in tone from clear and aggressive ("POWER," "FREEZE") to meek and mysterious ("SUR," "NAVI),” he wrote. “I counted up the buttons I've actually pressed – not the ones I've pressed most often, but the ones I've pressed, period. The number was 34. I had a surplus of nearly five dozen.”

“The arrival of cable television in the 1980s, with dozens and dozens or even hundreds of channels, ushered in an era where programmable remotes had to operate many different functions and a diversity of televisions,” says Beschloss. “The remotes, like the cable systems themselves, became more difficult to deal with.”

But recently things have changed. We may be returning to another golden age of the remote – partly thanks to the fact that we’re not watching as much TV on our television sets, and the remotes we’re using don’t necessarily have to be held in our hands.

“Not only are we moving towards being able to use our phones to operate all our home devices, we are now seeing wireless devices that take verbal demands,” says Beschloss. “Rather than searching for my remote control under or between the cracks of the sofa, you just have to tell the wireless device what show or channel you want on your TV screen. As somebody who currently has about seven remotes thrashing about my den, that feels like progress.”

The only downside with this new version? It’s a lot more difficult to act out your Buck Rogers fantasies.

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