The History of the Television Remote

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At this point, the average American is likely pretty used to using television remote controls to change the change, adjust volume and other basic feats. Of course, programming a remote, locating it when it’s lost, or finding good replacement remotes when our favorite control breaks might be another matter, but by and large, we are acclimated to sitting back while this common device does the work for us. Because of this, it is easy to forget just how amazing this technology is, especially when compared to how our recent ancestors used to live. In truth, there is a lot of history behind your TV remote controls; read on to learn about the people and decisions that brought this technology into your home.

Like Many Things, It Began With Tesla…
In 1898, wireless technology was a new field, which was being studied with the potential application of sending messages. However, at the Electrical Exhibition in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, famed Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla used an early version of a remote to steer a four-foot long boat without any wires. A patent issued to Tesla that year shows that he thought his device would be used for a variety of purposes, but particularly for warfare. Unfortunately for Tesla, wireless weapons weren’t a huge priority for the U.S. military until the early 2000s, although the German Army reportedly tried using remote-controlled boats as early as World War I.

The Reign of the Radio
While you may have all in one remote controls that operate your television, stereo and other devices, the first consumer application of remote technology was solely used for radio. In 1939, the radio appliance manufacturer Philco released a product they called “Mystery Control”, the first wireless remote for this burgeoning entertainment system. While other companies had produced remotes in the past, the Mystery Control was the first truly wireless option to exist in the home.

The Dawn of Television, and the Television Remote
As American society switched its focus to television in the 50s and 60s, so did advertisers. This was the start of the commercials that now send you digging through your sofa cushions and cause you to order replacement remotes, and your forefathers were just as desperate to avoid them as you are. Accordingly, a company called Zenith released its “Lazy Bones” remote in 1950, which maintained a wired connection to the television. By 1955, Zenith had improved upon this concept by releasing the Flash-matic, which allowed users to change channels, adjust volume and more by aiming a beam of light at four photo cells located in the corners of the television screen. This device was immediately popular, but the photo cells could be unintentionally operated by sunlight. As a result, Zenith continued adapting the product, eventually releasing the Space Command remote, which used high-frequency signals to control televisions.

The creation of high-frequency remotes triggered a number of changes in the years to come: the 1980s particularly caused the average American TV to change, expanding remote control usage, adding more buttons to those remotes, and eventually adapting remotes to use infrared and digital technology. Today, you have access to a wide variety of devices, including replacement remotes to better meet your needs. Next time you pick up your remote to change the channel or adjust the volume, don’t forget to consider how cool this common technology really is. Good references here.

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