Remote controls are one of the most ubiquitous symbols of our modern technologies. Serious electronics connoisseurs might have a dozen remotes scattered on their coffee tables for their entertainment system; even your friends who are less fond of electronics likely have a handful of remotes at their disposal, controlling everything from TVs and air conditioners to car door locks. And of course, all of us probably have at least one or two remotes permanently lost amid an army of dust bunnies under the couch.
Although remotes are most closely linked to television control in popular culture, these devices actually predate TV. In fact, remote controls are an invention born in the 1800s.
Renowned Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla created one of the world's first wireless remote controls, which he unveiled at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1898. He called his fledgling system, which could be used to control a range of mechanical contraptions, a "teleautomaton." For his demonstration, Tesla employed a miniature boat controlled by radio waves. The boat had a small metal antenna that could receive exactly one radio frequency.
Tesla sent signals to the boat using a box -- his version of a remote control -- equipped with a lever and a telegraph key (originally designed to send Morse code signals). The signals generated from this box shifted electrical contacts aboard the boat, which, in turn, adjusted settings for the rudder and propeller, allowing the operator to control the boat's motion.
Financially, Tesla's remote-controlled boats were a flop. His intended client, the U.S. Navy, thought the technology was too flimsy for war. But the concept of remote control caught on and quickly spread to many other types of equipment.
Shortly after Tesla's breakthroughs, Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres-Quevedo used wireless telegraph transmitters to control first a tricycle, then an engine-powered boat, and even submarine torpedoes.
The work of these inventors was a harbinger of things to come. In World War I, the German navy used remotely controlled boats loaded with explosives to attack opposition ships. It was the advent of a new type of warfare, in which armed forces could direct armaments from a distance. During World War II, the German and American armed militaries also experimented and deployed a range of guided missiles and torpedoes.
In the 1930s and 1940s, a few consumer electronics, such as garage door openers and model airplanes, arrived with remote controls. Other products soon followed suit, but this was still just the beginning for remotes, which have radically altered our technological landscape.
Days of our Remote-controlled Lives
The 1930s saw the emergence of remote controls for radios. Philco (Philadelphia Storage Battery Company) offered some of its high-end radios with a wireless, battery-powered remote called the Mystery Control. However, those early radio remotes had little impact compared to TV remotes.
Before remotes, TV viewers had to plod to their televisions to change the channel and volume using rotating dials or buttons. In 1950, electronics manufacturer Zenith introduced the Lazy Bones remote. Unfortunately, it used a long, snaking cable that turned as many ankles as it did channels.
In the mid 1950s, Zenith engineer Eugene Polley devised his Flashmatic TV remote, which used directional flashes of light to control the television. But the TV's four photo cells (one in each corner of the screen) responded to all sorts of light sources, including sunlight and ceiling lights, causing spontaneous channel changes.
In 1956, Polley's colleague, Robert Adler, created the Space Command control, which employed high-frequency, ultrasonic sound instead of light. This new remote didn't even require batteries. Instead, it had tiny hammers to strike one of four aluminum rods, creating different sounds used only by the TV's receiver. One rod each controlled the on and off power functions and the channel up and down function. There was no volume control.
This style of remote increased the price of a new TV by a third, but that didn't stop people from buying them in mass quantities. These remotes became known as "clickers" due to the sound they made, and although their ultrasonic frequencies were inaudible to humans, they drove a lot of dogs bonkers.
Remote controls completely changed the way consumers interacted with their electronic devices. Instead of getting a bit of exercise every time they wanted to change a radio station or TV channel, people could remain glued to their chairs for hours on end -- giving rise to the term "couch potato."
This was a new type of sedentary lifestyle, one in which motionless consumers could call upon hundreds or even thousands of television channels, unlimited music choices, and movies. And because viewers tended to click through commercials or slow scenes, TV programs changed as well, with faster pacing to keep people continuously engaged.
Remotes kept evolving, too. Ultrasonic remotes were the standard for TVs until the 1980s, when remotes began using the infrared light signals that are most common today. Remotes became so popular for so many devices that "remote overload" exasperated many people, sparking the development of so-called universal remotes, which could be programmed to control multiple devices.
Of course, remotes are for more than just channel surfing. Next, you'll see how remote controls are in some ways making us more productive and adventurous than ever before.
These days, you can find remote control capability built into a huge array of products. Toy cars and helicopters, video game consoles, ceiling fans, you name it -- there's a good chance you can find a version that's controlled by a remote. You can even buy a remote-controlled toilet, the Kohler C3 bidet.
And the remotes themselves come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from oversized versions for the near-sighted to tiny, pocket-size devices. Samsung's LED 9000 TV even comes with a remote that has its own built-in LCD touchscreen, letting you watch a TV program different from the one on the big screen.
Smartphones are becoming universal remotes that can control a multitude of digital products. With the right app, you can use your phone to unlock a car door from miles away, schedule your DVR to record a TV program, control YouTube on your laptop, or, you guessed it, change channels (and a lot more) on your TV.
Remote technologies have more serious purposes, too. There are now all sorts of precision-guided munitions used in conflicts all over the world. Laser-guided bombs are used to hit small areas that were much harder to attack using conventional "dumb" bombs. Cruise missiles can be launched from many miles away and guided into almost any target.
A variety of armored vehicles are now equipped with remote-controlled gun turrets that allow soldiers to sit beneath the weapon in relative safety, aiming and firing the gun using a camera and joystick controls. Pilotless drone aircraft provide remote surveillance and attack capabilities controlled by office-bound strike teams thousands of miles away.
Remote technology lets us pursue less destructive aspirations, too. NASA relies heavily on remote control for many of its projects. One of the organization's biggest triumphs came in 1997, when the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft deployed a roving probe to the surface of Mars.
Scientists on Earth sent instructions to the rover, commanding it to use different instruments to collect data regarding weather, soil conditions and much more. The success of this mission spawned a rewarding follow-up mission in 2003, in which the rovers Spirit and Opportunity explored Mars for years.
Remote controls have allowed humans to perform many tasks that would be difficult, if not impossible. And although remotes might have a long history, they are anything but over. As we continue to weave technology into every aspect of our lives, it's very likely that we'll need remotes to keep things under control.
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