Dec. 4: Banner day for couch potatoes! TV remote control inventor was born a century ago today


Photographed at an exhibit on TV in the antenna age at the SFO Museum at San Francisco International Airport. (Photo …

(Photo credit: Todd Ehlers, Flickr)

Without today’s birthday boy, you might still be getting out of your chair every time you want to change the channel on the TV.

Robert Adler, inventor of the first practical, wireless television remote control, was born on this day in 1913. His remote control had what may be the second-best remote control name ever: The Space Command. (The best remote name ever really has to go to the Space Command’s predecessor, the Lazy Bones.)

Television remote controls were developed in the early 1950s. Electronics giant Zenith, where Adler worked, introduced the first remote control, the Lazy Bones, but it wasn’t quite remote—the control was connected to the television with a clumsy cord. The next iteration also had a great name, the Zenith Flash-Matic, but it too was problematic. The Flash-Matic used light beams pointed at photo cells in the television set. That seemed to work well enough, unless the television was exposed to any direct sunlight, inadvertently triggering the remote control functions.

That simply would not do, Zenith decided. So they sent their engineers, including Adler, back to the drawing board. This time around, Adler found the solution: ultrasound. The high-frequency waves, traveling above the range of human hearing, would strike one of four aluminum rods inside the set, which subsequently produced tones that the television recognized as one of four commands.

The remote could change the channel up or down, turn the sound on or off, or turn the power on or off. Conveniently, it did not require a battery to operate.

It rolled out in 1956 and was sold with more than 9 million TV sets before the technology was eventually replaced by infrared systems.

Todd Ehlers writes in the Flickr caption to the smaller photo above: "How I loved this gadget!
"Chrome exterior, a bit weighty in the hand, a very cool name, set screws for easy investigation on the under casing, and a definite, snap-CLICK action to each trigger.
"This is analog because the 'buttons' are actually spring-loaded triggers that strike one of four aluminum rods in the housing. Along the principles of tuning fork harmonics, the resonance and pitch were received by 1970s TV Zenith sets to engage one of four functions that are listed on the faceplate.
"Well I remember my brothers and I taking this apart to drop the rods to the floor for random, analog-ous effect!"

Adler died in 2007 and was subsequently inducted into the Inventor Hall of Fame.

Ilyce Glink is an award-winning, nationally syndicated real estate columnist, blogger and radio talk show host, and managing editor of the Equifax Finance Blog. Follow her on Twitter @Glink.

On This Day, previously:

Nov. 18: Push-button touch-tone phones debuted on this day 50 years ago
Oct. 25: The first home microwaves
Sept. 10: Happy birthday to the Swanson's TV dinner!

View Comments