Couch potatoes around the world should have a moment of silence for the passing of Dr. Robert Adler, the co-inventor of the TV remote control, who died on Feb 16, 2007 at the age of 93. Adler’s invention of the "Space Command" ultrasonic remote control for television, the first practical wireless remote control device, was introduced by Zenith in 1956. The unit pioneered the way for the myriad of remote controls that are part of everyday life. A 1956 Zenith ad proclaimed that the Space Commander 400 was the “one and only thing new in television.”
Surprisingly, the first remote control was a mechanical and not an electrical device. During the development phase, input from Zenith’s sales people discouraged the use of batteries. They thought that with a dead battery, customers would infer that something was wrong with the TV. So, Adler used ultrasonic technology to send signals to the receiver in the TV. Pushing, or more appropriately triggering, one of the unit’s buttons caused a spring-loaded hammer to strike one of four separate aluminum rods and create a unique frequency signal. One button controlled the on-off.The second lowered the tuner to the next available channel and the third raised the tuner. The fourth button turned the volume on or off. The audible sound produced by pushing the button was more like a click and resulted in the unit being called the “clicker.”
While the remote sending unit was mechanical, the receiver in the TV used six vacuum tubes to decipher the four signals, relays to apply power, and a motor to drive the mechanical tuner to higher or lower channels. The cost of the system added more than 30% to the cost of the black and white TV. Among the unique design aspects of the remote was a latch mechanism for mounting and easily removing the unit from the TV. It was never meant to be left on the coffee table or lost between the cushions on the couch.
Once transistors became popular in the 1960s, Adler’s mechanical ultrasonic technique yielded to battery-powered electronic audio signals and ultimately to infrared wireless control. However, more than nine million remotely control TVs were sold by the industry during the 25-year life cycle of the ultrasonic versions. Fifty years after the first remote control appeared, more than 99 percent of all TV sets and 100 percent of all VCRs and DVD players sold in the United States are equipped with a remote control.
The remote control was perhaps Adler’s most memorable invention, but he was a prolific inventor with over 180 issued patents. On Feb. 1, 2007, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published his most recent patent application for advances in touch-screen technology.