The TV remote at mid-life
After 50 years, it's still in control
By PETER GENOVESE
The father of the remote control owns exactly one remote, which he possesses reluctantly and uses sporadically, because, at age 86, he's got better things to do than sit on his living room sofa and watch TV.
"Until a few months ago, I had a 20-year-old TV set and remote control," Robert Adler says from his suburban Chicago home. "John Taylor (public relations spokesman for Zenith) decided this was a situation that could not be tolerated and they presented us with a beautiful new TV set and matching remote."
Adler, the inventor of the Zenith Space Command, the first practical wireless remote control, is one of scant few Americans who don't click, zip and zap on a regular basis. No one knows how often the average American uses the remote -- estimates vary wildly, from four to 107 times an hour -- but one thing is for sure: The remote, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is in control of American home life.
"The remote," says Ron Simon, curator of television at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York, "represents power."
Power, ease, control: Was there any 20th century device more useful and convenient than the simple remote? The ultimate -- if only -- accessory for couch potatoes; the dividing line in the battle of the sexes (the male of the species has long controlled the clicker, but studies show that his grip is weakening); a device which at the touch of a button can thoroughly alter your environment.
Confess: If you had to choose between your microwave or your remote, which would you keep?
"There are a million remotes out there," says Harry Poster of Fair Lawn, a buyer and converter of vintage televisions whose collection of remote controls includes everything from boxy Zenith Space Commands to a watch-remote described by the manufacturer as a "Wrist TV Omnipotent Remote Controller."
Actually, there are hundreds of millions of remotes out there. The average American household has four-plus remotes, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. A total of 99 percent of all TV sets and 100 percent of VCRs sold in this country come with remote controls. They are everywhere, they are proliferating and they taking over. They control the horizontal and vertical, your TV, VCR and DVD player, and everything from fans and air conditioners to fireplaces.
"Subversive" is how Robert V. Bellamy Jr. and James R. Walker describe the remote control.
"By allowing the user to move rapidly between program offerings and avoid unpleasant or uninteresting material," the remote control device works in opposition to the very "structure" and "parameters" of the U.S. television industry, according to Bellamy and Walker, co-authors of the book "Television and the Remote Control: Grazing on a Vast Wasteland."
A recent George Bush ad ridicules Al Gore for claiming to have invented the Internet. A woman's voice comes on and says, "Yeah, and I invented the remote control."
Thirty-four percent of us, according to one survey, have fallen off the sofa while reaching for the remote. A quarter of us tend to reach for the remote with our feet or toes. Fifty-three percent would rather have someone throw the remote across the room than get up and get it themselves. Sixty percent of us take the batteries out of another appliance to keep the remote working.
You don't have to sell Daniel Tonks on the remote's merits. Tonks, of Toronto, runs a Web site (remotecentral.com) that started as a single-page link in 1998 and now contains 1,400 pages of information and messages. The Web site is techie heaven; you won't find fond, rambling reminiscences of remotes here. Witness this recent posting:
Cinema6 and 7 . . . can control X-10 commands easily. On a 6 you have to use the CD device and set it to code 167 to get IR X-10 control. The 7 has a AUX key I use for X-10. Neither controls X-10 using RF. Forget the 6. Get a 7.
Tonks describes the remote as a device of "great convenience," but as a technological advance ranks it far below the telephone or television.
Millions of American men, for whom a remote control, six-pack and bag of chips comprise the Holy Trinity of the TV-viewing experience, might disagree. Sports Illustrated dubbed Adler and Eugene Polley, inventor of an earlier Zenith remote, the magazine's Men of the Millennium.
Today's remotes are not your father's remotes. They're not even last week's remotes; advances in remote control technology are coming fast and furiously. Remotes with color screens? On their way. Remotes with multimedia and streaming capabilities? Not far off.
Yes, you can still run to Radio Shack and buy a $9.95 universal remote to control your TV, VCR and cable box. Or you can pick up one of Sony's RM-AV2100 Integrated Remote Commanders, which can control up to 12 audio/video components and allow you to run up to 16 operational steps at the touch of a single button.
The RM-AV2100 retails for $179.95. Two hundred bucks for a clicker? It's Sony's best-selling remote.
To hear Phil Petescia talk, we are in the midst of nothing less than a remote control revolution.
"For the past 10 years you have had your TV, VCR and cable box and wanted one remote to control all three," said Petescia, director/general manager of accessory products for Sony Electronics, based in Park Ridge. "Over the past 12 months this has all changed. People are adding DVDs and home theater. Throw in satellite dishes (10 percent of American households have dishes; in three years, according to industry estimates, 25 percent of households will own dishes). Once you start putting all these things together, you say to yourself, 'I wish there was some way all these components could talk together.' The (advanced) remote control has become that device to tell all your components what to do."
The clicker has come a long way from Lazy Bones. That was the name of the first remote, back in 1950. Lazy Bones used a cable that ran from the TV set to the remote. By pressing buttons on the remote, viewers could change channels to a higher or lower number. The hand-grenade-shaped Lazy Bones was a technological explosion.
"Amazing!" trumpeted a Zenith ad. "Prest-o! Change-o! With Zenith's Lazy Bones you remain seated during an entire evening's television entertainment."
There was one big problem with Lazy Bones. Viewers would trip over the unsightly wire that meandered across the living room floor. Zenith founder-president Eugene McDonald, known to his troops as the Commander, had another problem -- Lazy Bones couldn't zap commercials, which McDonald not only detested but considered a feature doomed to failure. Zenith engineers quickly set about developing a wireless remote that would enable viewers to turn the picture and sound on and off, change channels -- and mute those infernal commercials.
The first wireless remote was Zenith's "Flashmatic," which operated by means of four photo cells and used a highly directional flashlight to activate the four control functions.
"To the magic of Christmas, add a bit of electronic magic from Zenith," according to a 1955 ad in the Saturday Evening Post. "Shoot off annoying commercials from across room with flash of magic light. . .No wires or cords! It's so astounding that you have to see it to believe it!"
There was one big problem with the Flashmatic. It was a simple device with no protection circuits; if the TV sat directly in the sun, the tuner often started rotating.
Enter Adler and his team of engineers. In 1955, McDonald, according to Adler, summoned "everyone who was everyone" at Zenith into his office. The direct order from the Commander: Build me a better remote. Now.
"The obvious thing was to do it by radio waves," Adler recalled. "But radio goes through walls, and the feeling was that people in two different houses would control each other's TV. I just scanned in my mind all the things that couldn't go through walls. There are not many of them."
His idea: ultrasonics, or high-frequency sound. The Space Command didn't use batteries. Lightweight aluminum rods, when struck at one end, emitted high-frequency sounds that activated channel, sound and on-off controls.
Adler's engineers first settled on a frequency of 18,000 cycles a second, but a young woman on the team complained about the sound.
"It made her jump," Adler said. "She threatened to quit. so we changed the frequencies." He laughed. "We wanted to keep her."
The new device made Lazy Bones look crude and cheap. "Look out, Gracie!" George Burns told wife Gracie Allen in a magazine ad. "With Zenith Space Command I can change programs from across the room."
Adler's ultrasonic remote control invention lasted through the early 1980s, when the industry moved to infrared, or IR, remote technology. IR works by using a low-frequency light beam -- so low that the human eye cannot see it, but which can be detected by a receiver in the television.
The father of remote control owns a grand total of three remotes -- one for the TV, one for the VCR, one for the DVD player. He knows how to operate the remote for his brand new 30-inch TV, right?
"I don't use it enough to be really familiar with it," he admits. "But I know how to turn it on and off."