One Saturday, about a month before Christmas 50 years ago, I was with my Uncle George in a department store in Pittsburgh, Pa. The whole family was Christmas shopping here and there, but George and I happened to be walking by the television and radio department.
A man in a gray double breasted suit was talking to an elderly couple as they stood looking at a television set about 15 feet away from them. "Now watch," the man said and he gestured toward the television and the picture changed. I didn't comprehend what was happening at first. I thought the scene on the television had changed coincidentally with the man's gesture.
"I'm changing channels," the man said with a smile, looking toward my uncle. "With this." He held up his right hand and in it was a black rectangular device a little bigger than a pack of cigarettes.
"Here, son," he said, looking at me. "Give it a try." In my hand the thing had about the size and heft of my older brother's Schick electric shaver. Embossed in the shiny dark plastic case were the familiar Zenith crest and the words "Space Commander 400." There were four square buttons or keys in a row at one end. As best I can recall, the first one was labeled "on-off," the next two were labeled "left" and "right," and the last one was "mute."
I held the thing awkwardly in the palm of my left hand and pressed either the "left" or "right" button, I don't remember which. There was a distinct click - more a feel than a sound - when I pressed the button. Sure enough, the channel on the television changed. It was a big Zenith floor model with a screen much larger than the Philco we had back home in Rector.
We were impressed. I mean, my uncle and I grinned sheepishly and kind of shuffled and shook our heads in amazement. But amazement turned to a mild shock when we finally understood that this "remote TV tuner," as a sign on top of the television called it, wouldn't work on our Philco. It only worked with Zenith television sets and only their top-of-the-line sets. And they were very expensive.
But, hey, we had been there at the dawn. Remote control had come to television. And that December of 1956, a select few well-heeled viewers could sit in their easy chairs, change channels and, best of all, mute commercials, while watching Lucy and Desi trim the Christmas tree for little Ricky or Basil Rathbone as a singing Scrooge in the Alcoa Hour's special presentation, "The Stingiest Man in Town."
The remote, which has so profoundly changed the television watching habits of mankind for the past half century, was the product of one man's frustration and another man's genius.
The frustrated man was Eugene F. McDonald, Jr., the founder of Chicago-based Zenith Radio Corporation (now Zenith Electronics Corp.). A radio pioneer, of keen mind, who took intense personal interest in his company's products, McDonald hated television commercials. In fact, he believed that commercial television would collapse and he worked mightily to create a subscription-only, commercial-free TV network. Meanwhile, he goaded his engineers and scientists; couldn't they find a way to allow the viewer to at least cut off the sound when a commercial came on?
Their first response came in 1950 with the introduction of the presciently named "Lazy Bones" remote. Well, sort of remote. It had to be tethered to the television set by a wire. The wire tripped grandpa, got sucked up in the vacuum cleaner and looked unsightly.
Then Zenith engineer Eugene Polley came up with the first wireless remote in 1955. It was called the "Flashmatic" and it was a brief sensation. It basically was a sophisticated directional flashlight that had to be pointed at one of four photoelectric cells located in each corner of the television screen. Each cell controlled a simple function - on-off, channel-up, etc.
The Flashmatic was a brief sensation because it soon became apparent that a shaft of sunlight or intense lamplight could affect the photo cells. Suddenly the television would begin to roam through the channels or turn off just as Perry Como was introducing his "special guest" or Dinah Shore was going into her big number on The Chevy Show.
As feedback filtered in re the Flashmatic, Zenith was already at work on improving its wireless remote. Use of a radio signal had been discussed but finally rejected because of fear users might inadvertently change channels on a neighbor's TV. How about a distinctive sound? The lab boys sorted through all sorts of possibilities, but couldn't guarantee that ambient household noises or even sounds from television programs themselves might not trigger the remote.
There was another challenge. The Flashmatic required batteries. This was in pre-alkaline days. It didn't take long to run down the batteries in a flashlight (the principal battery using device at the time) or the Flashmatic. Zenith dealers and repairmen were getting complaints that the directional remote didn't work, when in fact it was just the batteries that had failed.
This brings us to the genius in the equation. One of Zenith's top scientists was an Austrian émigré named Dr. Robert Adler, a brilliant man who was a wizard in, among other things, high-frequency sound. In a matter of months Dr. Adler's research team worked out an elegant solution, a purely mechanical device that required no batteries.
Adapting the principle of ultrasonics - sounds at a frequency beyond the human ear - the Adler team came up with a system of four precisely "tuned" aluminum rods. Each rod was about 2-1/2 inches long, but each was in fact cut to an exact length that gave it a unique frequency when vibrated. Above each rod was a small hammer, triggered by spring, corresponding to the four buttons. One rod's inaudible vibration turned the set on and off, two moved the channel selector up or down, and the fourth (McDonald's favorite) muted the sound.
Zenith was able to test and put the Space Command into production in time for the Christmas shopping season of 1956. It was expensive. It increased the cost of a Zenith television receiver by 30 percent. This was because a special ultrasonic receiver involving six vacuum tubes had to be installed in sets sold with the remote. I do not remember the exact price of the set George and I saw that day in Pittsburgh but it made my uncle, who loved technology, a bit ashen faced.
But Space Command was an instant success. Magazine ads that December showed a Santa Claus saying, "Give your family the one and only thing really NEW in television!" This, as it turned out, was McDonald's little gibe at RCA and other competitors who were pushing color television that year - at a time when there was still very little color programming and the best color picture left a lot to be desired. Zenith was sticking with black and white until it could come up with what it considered a better color system.
The ad copy dwelt as well on McDonald's obsession with TV commercials. "Shuts off the sound of long, annoying commercials!" read the bold type. And in case you didn't get it, the opening paragraph of the ad's copy noted: "Turns set on and off; changes stations, turns off sound during long, annoying commercials, while the picture remains!
The ads assured viewers: "Emits no radiations harmful to humans. You do not see, hear, or in any way feel transmission of any impulses between the 'Space Commander' and the set. Nothing between you and the set but 'SPACE' - and nothing for you to do but give a silent 'COMMAND' with the touch of a button!"
Another ad showed actor-comedian George Burns, of the popular Burns and Allen Show, holding one of the devices and shouting. "LOOK OUT, GRACIE! WITH ZENITH SPACE COMMAND I CAN CHANGE PROGRAMS FROM ACROSS THE ROOM!"
Inevitably, other TV manufacturers adopted the Zenith ultrasonic system and the basic principle dominated television remote control for a quarter century. Improvements in small batteries and continued advances in transistors and solid-state circuitry in ensuing years led to electronic rather than mechanical generation of the ultrasonic signals in increasingly familiar, battery-powered multi-button remotes.
In the 1980s the ultrasonic remote control gave way to the infrared or IR remote that is the standard today. A low frequency light beam, invisible to the human eye, is picked up by a receiver in the TV and triggers the controls. The system spread quickly, to VCRs, DVDs and myriad other household devices. 1985 was the first year that more televisions were sold with than without remotes.
I remember that as we drove home from Christmas shopping that day fifty years ago, George and I puzzled as to how the Space Commander worked. The salesman had insisted that there were no batteries in it and no radio. I think we finally concluded it was just some "atomic age" thing. Ultrasound never came up.
But from then on, I couldn't help but think about "that remote control doohickey" whenever I was on the couch and had to get up and change the channel because singer Snooky Lanson was murdering a rock'n roll song on "Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade."
As Greg Beato noted recently in Reason magazine, "the media are connected to us, shaped by our attention, governed by our input." And the advent of the remote "simply amplified this relationship and made it impossible to ignore. It turned the feedback loop into a noose that could snuff out sitcoms in a single episode."
Is it accidental that in the age of the remote we discovered attention deficit syndrome? The remote has refined our impatience and, curiously, kept us attached to the television. Rather than turn it off, we scroll through the channels searching for something that will reward our impatience, something seldom there.
Now in his 90s, the remote's "father," Dr. Adler, reportedly watches only about an hour of TV a week. Zenith is a wholly owned subsidiary of South Korean's LG Electronics. And virtually every television sold has a remote control included.