Time warp – the remote control turns 50

We complain today about the number cluttering up our coffee tables, but time was when the remote control and the convenience it affords simply didn’t exist. TV was but a black-and-white ‘babe-in-ohms’ back then (and  there weren’t that many channels to surf) but US electronics company Zenith determined that people should be able to control the telly from where they sat and tasked a group of engineers with finding a way to make it happen.

Success came in 1952 with the ‘Lazy Bones’, which used a long cable that, attached to the telly, mechanically turned the tuner inside the set in response to buttons being pushed on the remote. Three years later came the Flash-o-matic, a wireless remote that changed channels and altered volume by shining light towards photosensitive cells in each corner of the TV. Sunlight on the set, however, affected operations, and people tended to forget which corner of the TV controlled what. Enter the Space Command.

In 50 years, the remote control has evolved from a simple device driven by ultrasonic sound waves to one characterised by touchscreens, internet programmability and frustrating complexity.

Conceived in 1957 by a Doctor Adler, an engineer at Zenith, this used high frequency sounds and – requiring additional vacuum tubes inside the TV in order to receive the signal – was terrifically expensive. The introduction of transistors in the 1960s enabled the development of smaller, cheaper battery-controlled units, but the ultrasonic nature of the remote still set neighbourhood dogs a howling and made televisions sensitive to the many inaudible sounds within the average home.

Along with the inventor of the Flash-o-matic, Dr Adler was awarded an Emmy in 1997 for his hand in creating the modern day couch potato. He died earlier this year, but his invention ruled the lounge room for around 20 years until the introduction in the early ’80s of the infrared (IR) technology that dominates today.

This works by assigning a command to each button on the remote’s handset. When when pressed, the button sends a unique ‘code’ for that command via an invisible beam of light to a sensor in the TV – or other device – which then translates that command into action.

While most remotes control only one piece of equipment, universal learning remotes are preprogrammed with the codes for driving several components, and can be programmed to handle even more. This can be performed manually, via software and – most easily – via internet databases.

Physically, the fancier remotes squeeze in a teeny LCD screen and incorporate some backlighting, while high-end models sport large colour touchscreens and radio frequency technology (RF) for longer range and through-wall operation. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are also being used for wireless remote control, principally for games consoles, and we can expect this to become a trend as the computer continues its march into the living room.

For now, though, the remote has, like the cane toad, become a bigger problem than the one it meant to solve. So numerous are the buttons on most handsets, and so numerous are the handsets you now need, that the button count for a basic entertainment setup can tip 200. You will use around a half of these with any regularity, which means that half will serve only to confuse you and make it harder to hit the buttons you do use.