REMOTE CONTROL: The first wireless TV remote control I ever saw was in the mid-70s, when Shawn Parker’s dad traded up to a big new console colour TV set that came with a two-button remote the size of a thick pack of U.S. cigarettes. The buttons were sturdy black nubs that turned the TV on and off and cycled up through the channels with a solid mechanical thunk.
That’s right – no volume or menu, mute or “last channel” buttons, though channel surfing in only one ascending direction wasn’t as inconvenient as it sounds when there were only about twenty channels, including a few snowy U.S. stations your antenna could pull in only on clear days. The closest thing to it was the cable box that few families on the block had – a big brown slab studded with numbered buttons connected to another, featureless brown box by a long wire; it took pride of place on a TV tray next to the couch, next to whoever held the alpha role in the family.
I thought the Parkers’ remote was the niftiest thing in the world, and I used to sit and puzzle over how it worked during breaks from practicing duets on the Parkers’ living room piano with Shawn. Previous to that, the closest thing any of had ever seen to a remote was the youngest mobile member of the family, who had to leave their seat on the couch to change the channels, adjust the volume, vertical and horizontal hold, tweak the VHF and UHF tuners or do the most basic form of TV maintenance – giving the set a hard smack at its unique “magic spot,” inevitably located on the side, or at some point slightly off dead centre. After awhile, the junior family member consigned to human remote control duty usually learned to find a comfortable place on the floor, to save time.
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Robert Adler, the man who invented the TV remote control and birthed the couch potato in the process, died last Thursday at the age of 93. Born in Vienna, Adler emigrated to the U.S. after receiving his Ph. D. in physics, and joined the research division of Zenith (once a leading U.S. electronics brand, now a division of LG) in 1941. He developed the ultrasonic “Space Command” remote with fellow Zenith engineer Eugene Polley, for which they were honoured with an Emmy in 1997. His work influenced the development of projection TVs and cell phones, and he was a pioneer of touch screen technology. His most recent patent was published on Feb. 1.
Zenith introduced the Space Command in 1956, but it took almost twenty years to become cheap enough to show up in working class living rooms in my neighbourhood. Today, almost every piece of home electronics comes with a remote; most TV sets lack all but the most basic controls adjacent to the screen, and need a remote to access everything but power, volume and channels. There was once a time when TV sets were treated like radios – parked on one channel out of a combination of convenience and lack of choice. We’ve come to regard technology as mercurial, but sometimes years will pass before the implications of some seemingly superfluous gadget become apparent; it took more than a generation, but the Space Command enabled us to become the restless, fickle viewers we are today.