The humble television remote control was invented in 1950 by the Zenith Radio Corporation (which also made TV’s). Dubbed the “Lazy Bones”, it was attached to the TV set via a cable. A motor inside the TV set physically turned the dial that changed the channel. People liked having a remote control, but the specific unit was a failure because people in the room kept tripping over the cord and I suspect that the users didn’t take too kindly to being called “lazy” either. I can't help wondering why watchers needed remote controls back then, considering they had, at most, five or six channels to watch.

Zenith engineer Eugene Polley invented the "Flashmatic," which represented the industry's first wireless TV remote. Introduced in 1955, Flashmatic operated by means of four photocells, one in each corner of the TV cabinet around the screen. One set of cells represented channel up/down, the other being TV on/off. The watcher used the Flashmatic to shoot a beam of light at a certain cell in order to achieve the desired command. Unfortunately, the cells also reacted to sunlight, so if the sun shone directly on the TV it might start randomly flipping channels.

Zenith management demanded that the company engineers develop a wireless remote control that could not be interfered with by outside sources. They initially experimented with radio waves, but they proved to be too powerful, a user may be able to inadvertently control a TV on the other side of the house. Using audible sound was also attempted, but it was hard to find a sound that wouldn't accidentally be duplicated by either household noises or by the sound coming from TV programming. Dr. Robert Adler suggested using ultrasonic sounds beyond the range of human hearing. His remote was built around four aluminum rods that, when struck at one end, emitted distinctive high-frequency sounds. The pressing of a button stretched a spring that caused a tiny hammer to strike a certain rod, so it required no batteries. Called the “Zenith Space Command” it was released in 1956.

The addition of the remote control unit added 30% to the price of the television set, but was still a success and the design began to be adopted by other manufacturers. In the 1960s the development of transistors allowed the creation of remote controls that could generate the sounds electronically, this allowed the remote to give out more commands than the original four. This modified design became the industry standard until the 1980s. Some of these remotes were less than perfect, as I can remember clearly hearing the tones coming out of my Grandma’s old remote. But then again, maybe it was just my mutant hypersonic hearing ability manifesting itself.

In the early 1980s, the industry moved to infrared remote technology. The IR remote works by using a low frequency light beam that the human eye cannot see, but which a receiver in the TV can detect. This is still the main technology in use today thanks to the wide range of functions it can perform.

enth says In other trippy remote history, one version of the Zenith Space Command (and I actually own one of these, but not the TV it fits) works thusly: the inch (!) of button travel compresses a bellows, then the final bit of pressure releases a valve which pushes it through a small space to create a supposedly ultrasonic whistle sound. The remote has two buttons, on/off and flip channel.