Monday, December 04, 2000

TV remote turns 50

By Michael Stroh
Baltimore Sun

        “Today on Oprah ...”


        “... the courts in Florida must decide whether a hanging chad ...”


        “Yo! Wazzzzup ...”


        “The clicker,” “the zapper,” “the changer” — whatever we choose to call it — the television remote is the granddaddy of all gadgets, as indispensable to the family room as the TV itself. It has been blamed for ballooning waistlines, shrinking attention spans and strained relationships.

        And this year the remote control is 50 years old. We can hardly remember life without it. But as with other modern devices — from microwaves to cell phones — its origins and workings remain largely unknown to people who expect the apparatus to work without fail.

        The idea for the television remote began with Eugene McDonald, the founder of Zenith Radio Corp. The year was 1950, a time when you could count the number of channels in any city on one hand. But the eccentric former military man known as “the Commander” by his employees wasn't thinking about convenience, but commercials.

        Specifically, Mr. McDonald was thinking how much he despised ads. He considered commercial-free, pay TV a better business model for the industry. “He thought advertiser-supported television would never fly,” says John Taylor, Zenith's corporate historian.

        Until events might prove him right, Mr. McDonald wanted to offer customers who bought Zenith TVs a way to avoid commercials. The result was a device called Lazy Bones: “Prest-o! Change-o! Just Press a Button ... to Change A Station!” said an early ad.

        Lazy Bones was pricey — about $355 in today's dollars — and primitive: its two buttons could flick the TV on and off and change channels. It was tethered to the television by a thin cable, so the device could be dangerous: It's tether often turned into a tripwire.

        Mr. McDonald ordered his engineers to try again. A young Zenith engineer named Eugene Polley hit on the idea of using light to control the television. Tinkering with spare parts laying around his laboratory, he created a souped-up flashlight fashioned to look like a gun “so people could shoot out the commercial,” Mr. Polley says.

        The device was dubbed the Flash-Matic. It came with a specially-equipped television that had light-sensitive areas embedded in each corner of the set. Zap one corner with the Flash-Matic and the television flickered on or off. Aim at another and the channel flipped. And it was Mr. Polley who devised what may be the most beloved feature of all: the mute button.

        “It makes me think maybe my life wasn't wasted,” Mr. Polley says today. “Maybe I did something for humanity — like the guy who invented the flush toilet.”

        Zenith sold nearly 30,000 gun-shaped Flash-Matics after the product's launch in 1955, and gave Mr. Polley a $1,000 bonus for his efforts.

        But some customers soon learned the Flash-Matic still left room for improvement. People couldn't remember which corner of the screen controlled what. And the light sensors turned out to be sensitive not only to the remote control, but sunsets and ill-placed floor lamps.

        Zenith physicist Robert Adler, who helped run the company research department, was handed the task of improving Mr. Polley's design. The Zenith marketing department gave Mr. Adler's team one additional design requirement: the remote couldn't use batteries, to prevent a customer from thinking his TV had broken if the remote's battery went dead.

        Mr. Adler and his team of engineers considered using radio waves but abandoned the idea because they could travel through windows and walls. “Radio waves worked fine,” Mr. Adler once remarked. “But they also worked fine for your neighbor.”

        Then the engineers found a solution: ultrasonics, high-frequency sound waves inaudible to the human ear.

        The Zenith researchers built a remote control device containing four aluminum rods, each slightly different in length. Pressing one of the remotes' four buttons caused a small spring-loaded hammer to strike its corresponding rod like a tuning fork, emitting ultrasonic sound waves. Since each rod vibrated at a different frequency, which a microphone and receiver in the TV could distinguish.

        The device was named Space-Commander. The first one emerged from the assembly line in the fall of 1956. The technology added $100 to the price tag of the set, so Space-Commander sales were slow to take off. But by 1959, ultrasonic remotes became the industry standard for top-of-the-line TVs. According to Zenith, more than 9 million ultrasonic remotes were sold during the next quarter century.

        The noise made by these early mechanical remotes also lent the device its enduring nickname: “The clicker.”

        Beginning in the 1980s, ultrasonic remotes were replaced by devices that relied on low-frequency pulses of infrared light invisible to the human eye. These devices are cheaper to make and allow remote controls to control a larger number of functions, giving rise to the 50-button remotes common today.

        The average household has at least four remotes, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Most are for TVs and stereos. But others control air conditioners, window blinds, ceiling fans, gas fireplaces, house lights and car doors.

        The Lazy Bones and its successors have “totally revolutionized” the medium of television itself, says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. It not only changed the way we watch, but the way producers write television and film.

        “Possession of the device means that you have a choice to make every second. Is this dull? Am I bored yet?” writes James Gleick in Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. “Now every television programmer works in the shadow of the awareness that the audience is armed.”

        But while it gave rise to couch potatoes and channel surfing, the technology doesn't always make life easier. “Watching television isn't as relaxing as it used to be,” says Thompson. “There's this pressure, this really irritating voice in the back of your head that keeps telling you: "you're missing something on another channel.'It makes you wish you could go back to the old days.”


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