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My 7 year old niece Ellie was bemoaning the fact that the family telly only had one remote control and isn’t it a pity that she couldn’t switch channels using her ‘tablet’ !@£$.     There then followed a “kids of today speech” where both nephew & niece were astounded that tellies were black and white, had an 18-inch screen only three channels and no such thing as a remote control back when I was their age.  This little dialogue got me thinking and so led to this blog entry on the subject of remote control in general as well as remote control for TVs.    

The earliest occurrence of remote control by radio waves was developed by Nikola Tesla demonstrated using a radio-controlled “teleautomatic” boat to the public during an 1898 electrical exhibition in New York.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1932 that the first radio controlled model aircraft flew and only ten years after that that the first radio controlled missile, the Wasserfall was developed by those clever Germans.

The Wasserfall was a big improvement on Fernlenkboote used against coastal shipping which were controlled remotely from a shore station through several miles of connecting cable,  with an aircraft above shouting left a bit Fritz, no, more right Fritz!!!!

Moving back to TV - and radio, by the late 1930s, several radio manufacturers offered wired remote controls for some of their higher-end models. The exception though was the Philco Mystery Control of 1939 which was the first radio controlled household device that used a battery-operated low-frequency radio pulse count modulation transmitter. It was also the first DIGITAL remote control too.

The first remote intended to control a television was developed by the Zenith Radio Corporation (Now a division of LG Electronics) in 1950. The remote, called “Lazy Bones”, was connected to the TV by a wire but worked much the same way that remotes do today by having buttons to go up or down the channels as well as having buttons to turn the TV on or off.

A wireless remote control, the “Flashmatic”, was developed in 1955. It worked by shining a beam of light onto four photocells situated in each corner of the TV screen, however, the cells did not distinguish between light from the remote and light from other sources and often a stray beam of sunlight was enough to set the channels on rapid scroll!!!!! The Flashmatic ended up being an unreliable, intensely irritating commercial flop.

The race was then on to find a means of remote control that was reliable and accepted by the customer. As usual ,the engineers & scientists were hampered by the marketing wide boys …. “Oh, you can’t use radio as it will go through the wall and change the neighbor’s TV.” Another was “ You can’t put batteries in a remote as they will leak and people will blame the TV if the remote doesn’t work.”   A compromise had to be reached and an elegant yet bizarre technology was utilised.

Zenith’s Dr. Robert Adler suggested using ultrasonic-frequency sound as the basis for a remote control and went about designing a suitable device. The transmitter used no batteries, using four rods to generate four frequencies, each approximately 2-1/2 inches long, one for channel up, one for channel down, one for sound on and off, and one for on and off. These rods when struck by a sprung hammer released by a trigger mechanism ,emitted sound at an ultrasonic frequency that was detected by a microphone in the TV tuned to the frequency thus carrying out the function required.

All this came at a cost, as the engineering required to make this ultrasonic remote control was complex and costly as was the tuned control receiver that utilized six valves. When this ultrasonic remote control was first introduced in Autumn 1956 and marketed as “Zenith Space Command”, it’s cost represented 32% of the entire cost of the TV!!!

Interestingly, the ultrasonic design was so successful that it was adopted by other manufacturers who developed the idea further by using transistors and piezoelectric transducers to derive the control frequencies and ultrasonics went on to power 10,000,000 Stateside TVs until 1982 whilst upsetting a number of dogs (who could hear the operating frequencies) - indeed it is recorded that in 1968 a Shi-Tzu in Iowa was clubbed to death for incessantly barking when the TV channel was changed!!!!!

Things might have stayed there, but the introduction of Ceefax Teletext during 1974 prompted the development of remote controls that had a lot more functions.

 As Teletext pages were identified by three numbers, thus a remote control to select Teletext pages would need buttons for each numeral from zero to nine, as well additional control functions for text to picture switching as well as the normal TV controls. Early teletext sets used wired remote controls to select pages, but the continuous use of the remote control required for Teletext quickly indicated the need for a wireless device. So BBC engineers began talks with one or two television manufacturers, which led to the manufacture of working prototypes during 1978 utilising pulse code modulation infra red light to control multiple functions. ITT was one of those companies involved in this development work and their seminal work  was recognised by naming the IR coding standard the ITT Protocol of Infrared Communication.  This coding standard is used in virtually every IR remote made since 1984.  A further development was made courtesy of Philips in 1985 when the first ever universal remote control went on sale - surely this was the very pinnacle of development - or was it?

Now it seems we are on the cusp of change again with Bluetooth being the medium of choice for remote control – maybe that tablet will be able to change channel before very much longer after all!



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