What is the history of the remote control?

Days of our Remote-controlled Lives
Remotes have created an entire lifestyle of motionlessness -- unless you're fighting to grab the controller from someone else, that is.
Remotes have created an entire lifestyle of motionlessness -- unless you're fighting to grab the controller from someone else, that is.
Roger Weber/Getty Images

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.