TV Remote Control—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

The purpose of the “Extraordinary Ordinary Things” series of blogs is to highlight that certain things have become so embedded in daily life that we hardly ever think about them, and then to show how they are really dramatically remarkable. Frequently, examination of a particular extraordinary ordinary thing opens the door to a much broader concept whose effects on society are virtually incalculable. This is the case here with the TV remote control, specifically, and the virtually all-encompassing concept of remote control in general.

Some time ago I was watching a TV sitcom. It showed a family sitting down to watch TV but when one of the kids tried to turn it on, nothing happened. “Maybe the batteries in the remote control are dead,” said one. So they changed the batteries. When still nothing happened, the children went into a panic. “How can we watch TV when the remote is broken? We’re doomed!”

At this point, the father quietly went up to the TV set,  pressed the red “on” button and a picture appeared on the screen. The children were astonished. “Wow, dad! How did you do that?”

But before he could say anything, the cry went up, “The set is on, but this isn’t the channel we want. We’re doomed!” The father then turned a little wheel on the TV set until the screen showed the desired channel. Once again, “Wow, dad! How did you do that?” Once again before he could answer, the cry went up, “But it’s not loud enough; we can’t hear anything. We’re doomed!” The father then turned another wheel on the TV set, and the sound increased. Once again the reaction, “Wow, dad. How did you do that?”

This sitcom in which these events took place probably dated from the late 1980s when some TVs could be augmented with a remote control device, but still had manual controls as well. Today this same scenario couldn’t happen because all TV sets have remote control and no manual control.

Well, not quite. Modern TVs do have manual controls. However, for the most part, they can’t be seen because rather than being in plain sight, either they are hidden on the front or located on the sides or back of the set, which makes using them, or even noticing them, rather difficult.

Moreover, such manual controls permit adjustments to TV viewing far inferior to the almost endless options offered by remote control. Imagine trying to manually click the channel selection button to channel 78 when you are currently viewing channel 6, rather than simply inputting the number 78 on the remote control!

The moral of this story is, whereas a TV remote control (usually referred to simply as the “remote”) was once a luxury, today it is an absolute necessity. Modern TV viewing would be impossible without it. Moreover, the TV remote control is emblematic of the extraordinary advances that have been made in remote control technology in general for application in an almost endless variety of other fields in just the past two or three decades. And developments are continuing apace.

I, therefore, believe that the TV remote control very much deserves a place of honor on the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

A Short History of the TV Remote Control

Having grown up in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, I remember a time when a TV remote control was never even a concept for the very good reason that most people didn’t have a TV in the first place. For most of us who could not afford TV in the home, watching TV meant getting up, leaving the house, going to the nearest TV sales outlet, and hoping that a program would be showing in the store’s window so you could stand outside and watch it.

By the middle 1950s, large numbers of American homes had become equipped with a TV set. These were big, bulky things with tiny black-and-white screens. Although color TV was introduced in the U.S in 1953, for most people it was far too expensive and programs in color were extremely limited. The idea of a TV remote control was not yet even a glimmer in the consumer’s eye. The idea of just having a television at all was enough. The need to get up to change the channel (of which there was only a handful) or to adjust the volume just seemed to be a natural part of the package.

The closest thing to a TV remote control I remember from this period was when my mother began losing her hearing. I attached a set of headphones by a wire to the TV’s loudspeaker so she could hear what was going on without blasting the rest of us out of the room. This was not a real remote control because it did not control the sound that was coming out of the TV but rather modulated that sound as it arrived at the listener’s ears.

The idea for an actual TV remote control grew out of a situation that was peculiarly American. Unlike most of the rest of the world where TV broadcasting was a public enterprise, in the U.S. it was a private enterprise. TV broadcasting (like radio broadcasting before it) was broadly regulated by the national government (Federal Communication Commission); however, its prime purpose was commercial, i.e. to make money. And how do you make money from broadcasting? With advertising, advertising, and more advertising.

People had already gotten used to heavy advertising on radio. However, radio did not require one’s full attention; TV did. Thus, devoting each hour to 15-20 minutes of commercial messages became a real pain.

While annoying because of the advertising, America’s free enterprise broadcasting offered certain significant advantages.

  • First, receiving radio and TV broadcasts was free. There was no government license fee to pay.
  • Second, the profit motive encouraged radio and TV stations to proliferate. When I lived in Los Angeles in the 1950s, as I recall the area had around 50 radio stations and 10 TV stations. Elsewhere in the world, having five or six radio stations and one or two TV stations was the norm.
  • Third, there was little or no possibility that radio and TV broadcasting would become propaganda outlets for the federal government. The idea of a public broadcasting system was anathema in the U.S. Government radio and TV broadcasts were authorized only in the 1970s. Even then, public radio and TV represented (and still represent) only one radio or TV channel among dozens and dozens of non-governmental broadcasters.

In the 1950s Eugene F. McDonald, president of Zenith Electronics, set the company’s engineers a challenge. Make a device that could mute the advertisements (which were often broadcasted at a higher volume than the actual program), or skip to another channel where hopefully something other than advertisements were playing.

Eugene McDonald’s challenge sparked a revolution. No longer were TV viewers a captive (and irritated) audience. If they didn’t like what they were watching, they could simply change channels with the flick of a switch. The advertisers and commercial broadcasters did not like this very much; their profits were at stake. However, the deed had been done, and there was no going back.

This was not totally an original thought. Devices for remotely changing TV channels were already on the market, including Zenith’s own Lazy-Bones controller. However, they suffered from a couple of significant drawbacks. They connected to the TV set via a bothersome “umbilical cord” (electric wire). Moreover, while they allowed the user to turn the TV on or off, and to change channels, they were not able to mute those annoying, sometimes ear-splitting commercial messages.

Zenith’s game-changing wireless device, called the Flashmatic, was designed by Eugene Polley and released in 1955. Polley was not an electrical engineer, but rather a mechanical engineer, so his device was largely mechanical.

Flashmatic used a directional light source with a sensor in each corner of the TV screen. This allowed the viewer to change the channels going both to a higher number or lower number, and crucially to mute the sound. The Flasmatic’s major drawback was that the four sensors on the TV set reacted to more than just the light beam being sent out from the viewer’s hand. As noted by one TV historian, “Depending on where the TV was located, as the sun came up it might actually turn on the TV or change the channels.”

The Flashmatic also had a distinct commercial drawback. The cost. Looking something like a child’s toy ray gun, the device carried an eye-watering price tag of about $100. During the mid-1950s you could still buy a brand new car for about $600.

To increase reliability and reduce cost, Zenith went back to the drawing board under the charge of physicist Robert Adler in search of a fully electronic remote control rather than a partially mechanical one. This would require coming up with an entirely new way for the remote to talk to the TV.

One idea was radio waves. However, this was quickly dismissed because, as one researcher noted, “If you were in an apartment building, you might start changing the channel on the TV in the next room as well as your own.”

The Adler solution was to use sound, and in particular “ultrasonic sound.” This is sound beyond the ability of humans to hear, generally above 20,000 hertz (20 kilohertz). Zenith’s ultrasound remote, called the Space Command, used hammers hitting aluminum rods inside the remote which were carefully constructed to ring at specified frequencies—thus forcing the TV to turn on or off, change the channel, or mute and unmute the sound.

Like the Flashmatic, its partially mechanical predecessor, the Space Command had only a few functions controlled by only four buttons, making it easy to understand and use. When pushed, the buttons struck the rods inside with a kind of clicking sound, earning the device the nickname the “clicker,” a term for a TV remote control some people still use today.

The clicker reigned supreme well into the 1970s when advances in TV broadcasting rendered the device too simple to control new functions. A key development that helped render the four-button remote obsolete is attributed to the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) with its introduction in 1974 of Ceefax (pronounced “see facts”), a text-based service. However, it was impossible for most viewers to call up the pages of news, sports, financial, and other information on offer using only a simple four-button remote. A new remote had to be created that would have a numeric keypad to call up the different page numbers and to switch between the text service and normal TV viewing.

To accommodate the new needs, remote control developers had to find a different way of communicating with the TV set. They chose infra-red light, already a tried and true technology in other fields. Because the infrared TV remote was whisper quiet compared to earlier models, the previous nickname “clicker” quickly lost ground.

Perhaps the most dramatic influence on the development of the TV remote was the introduction and expansion of cable television in the 1980s and 1990s. There was also an explosion of ancillary devices such as video recorders, DVD players, and game consoles to be connected to the TV, which meant more and more buttons on the remote. Some models ballooned up to 92 of them, making them cumbersome, complex, and decidedly off-putting.

In a lengthy article on the subject, in 2012 journalist Daniel Engber was already lamenting the sudden proliferation of buttons on a device that had been meant to be a time-saver.

"There's an excess of buttons . . . 92 of them to be exact, arranged on my nightstand in rubbery rows, seven different colors worth, with overlapping labels that range in tone from clear and aggressive (POWER, FREEZE) to meek and mysterious (SUR, NAVI). I counted up the buttons I've actually pressed—not the ones I've pressed most often, but the ones I've pressed, period. The number was 34. I had a surplus of nearly five dozen.
“The arrival of cable television in the 1980s, with dozens and dozens, or even hundreds, of channels ushered in an era where programmable remotes had to operate many different functions and a diversity of televisions. The remotes, like the cable systems themselves, became more difficult to deal with.
"But recently things have changed. We may be returning to another golden age of the remote—partly thanks to the fact that we’re not watching as much TV on our television sets, and the remotes we’re using don’t necessarily have to be held in our hands.
“Not only are we moving towards being able to use our phones to operate all our home devices, we are now seeing wireless devices that take verbal demands. Rather than searching for the remote control under or between the cracks of the sofa, you just have to tell the wireless device what show or channel you want on your TV screen. As somebody who currently has about seven remotes thrashing about my den, that feels like progress.”

The Concept of Remote Control

The TV remote clearly is only one type of remote control. There are many others, such as the garage door opener and closer (clicker), automobile door lock and unlock, robotic vacuum cleaners, flying drones, music sound systems, etc.

The desire to control things at a distance is probably as old as mankind itself. Indeed, it can be argued all physical developments of human society in one way or another represent the desire to make things necessary to society more easily accessible at distance.

A fundamental definition of “remote control” would be:

  • Concept. Control of an operation from a point at some distance removed
  • Practice. A device or mechanism for controlling something from a distance

As strange as it might sound, from this point of view, a road could be considered a kind of remote control. For example, if you are located at point A and there is something of importance to you at point B some distance away, a road would make it easier for you to go get it (direct control) or to send a message to someone already there to send it to you (remote control). However, there are two things wrong with this odd analogy. First, there would be no way to ensure that the message had been received. Second, there would be no way of ensuring that someone or something at point B would give the desired response. 

Perhaps the telephone would be a more apt analogy. With a telephone, we could now ensure that the message is received at point B the moment someone there says “Hello.” However, we still could not ensure that the desired action at point B would be taken.

Thus, the concept of “remote control” would seem to consist of two essential elements, i.e. 1. a guarantee that a message sent from one remote location to another is actually received, 2. a guarantee that the remote location where the message is received reacts in the desired manner.

However, expecting that anything in the real world is guaranteed is utopian; something can always go wrong. The best we can hope for is to be able to reduce the chance of almost to the vanishing point. Given these utopian desiderata and practical restraints, it could be argued that modern remote control first appeared on the scene only as recently as the last decade of the 19th century. And that its development consisted of the following key steps.

1894. Physicist Oliver Lodge demonstrates the first example of wirelessly remote control by using a Branly coherer to cause a mirror galvanometer to move a beam of light when an electromagnetic wave was artificially generated.

1895. Jagadish Chandra Bose uses microwaves to fire a gun and to ring a bell at a distance of 23 meters (75 feet). To make the demonstration dramatically convincing, the feat was achieved by passing the waves through a number of intervening walls.

1897. Engineer Ernest Wilson uses radio waves to remotely control torpedoes and submarines.1898. Nikola Tesla files a U.S. patent for “An Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vehicle or Vehicles.” He publicly demonstrates the invention by using radio waves to remotely control a boat, which he called a “teleautomaton.”

1903. Leonardo Torres Quevedo demonstrates his “Telekino,” a kind of robot that executes commands transmitted by electromagnetic waves. Due to this invention, Torres Quevedo is often credited with laying down the fundamental principles of modern wireless remote control.

Since the time of Quevedo (1903), the remote control has undergone a succession of significant improvements, touching almost every conceivable aspect of daily life.

For example, the first wireless remote-controlled model airplane flew in 1932, using technology that was later adapted for military purposes such as the Wasserfall (Waterfall) missile developed by the Germans during the Second World War.

By the late 1930s, several radio manufacturers offered remote controls for some of their higher-end models. While most of these devices were connected to the set by wire, the Philco Mystery Control (1939) operated as a battery-operated, low-frequency radio wave transmitter. The Philco Mystery Control thus became the first wireless remote control on a device for the mass consumer. Using pulse-count modulation, it was also the first digital wireless remote control.

Starting from this breakthrough point, the use of consumer-oriented remote control proceeded apace, literally exploding over the past two or three decades.

By the early 2000s, the number of consumer electronic devices in most homes had greatly increased, along with the number of remotes needed to control them. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, by the early 2000s an average American home had at least four different remotes for controlling a variety of different devices such as a cable or satellite TV receiver, VCR or digital video recorder, DVD player, TV and audio amplifier, etc.  To work properly, several of these remotes needed to be used sequentially. However, since there were no accepted interface guidelines, the process became increasingly cumbersome.

Enter the universal remote, a programmable device with the operation codes for most major brands of TVs, audio systems, DVD players, etc.

In the early 2010s, many smartphone manufacturers began incorporating infrared emitters into their devices to enable them to be used as universal remotes via a built-in or downloadable app.

Even more recently, we seem to have stepped into the realm of what might be considered science-fiction, voice-activated remote control, e.g. Alexa and SIRI. Although basic technology has existed since the 1950s, it is only in the past few years that it has begun being taken up by the general public as a TV remote control.

The main technology used in the home, non-vocal remote controls today is still infrared (IR) light, i.e. electromagnetic waves ranging in length from the nominal red edge of the visible spectrum at around 700 nanometers up to 1 millimeter, and frequencies from about 430 terahertz up to 300 gigahertz. The signal between a remote control and the device it is controlling consists of pulses of infrared light, which are invisible to the human eye but can be detected by a digital camera, video camera, phone camera, etc. The transmitter is often a light-emitting diode (LED) built into the pointing end of the remote. The infrared light pulses form a pattern unique to that button the user presses. The receiver in the target device recognizes the pattern of pulses, causing the device to react accordingly.

Quotations about the TV Remote

You can often learn a lot about the impact of an invention on society by listening to what people have said about it during its evolution and integration into daily life. Here are a few of such illuminating quotes.

“Until I became a parent, I thought children just naturally knew how to catch a ball, that catching was an instinctive biological reflex that all children are born with, like knowing how to operate a remote control or getting high fevers in distant airports.”—Dave Barry

“Television is the most perfect democracy. You sit there with your remote control and vote.”—Aaron Brown

“. . . even good marriages sometimes involve flinging a remote control at the wall.”—Ada Calhoun

“It’s as if some bored ethereal being is fiddling with the remote control to his imagination, clicking channel after channel without finding anything to capture his interest for very long.”—C. Robert Cargill

“The first thing I did on my diet was to take the batteries out of the remote control and make myself get up and change the channel. That’s probably the hardest exercise I did.”Stephen Furst

You ever look for the remote control, but you can’t find it, so you just decide, ‘Ah, guess I’m not watching TV. I’m not gonna take two steps and turn it on myself. I’ll go to the gym if I’m going to work out.'”—Jim Gaffigan

“But love like that can be too big, too. It can be something you shouldn’t be trusted to hold when you’re the kind of person who drops the eggs and breaks the remote control.”Amy Garvey

“He who controls the remote, controls the world.”Julie Garwood

“Today, watching television often means fighting, violence, and foul language—and that’s just deciding who gets to hold the remote control.”—Donna Gephart

I’m one of those people that picks up the remote controland just keep hitting constantly, even if I like the show I’m watching.”Gilbert Gottfried

When I went home . . . I promised myself I would take a cool shower and I would read. After a day spent dealing with others, television was just one more batch of voices to listen to; I’d rather have a book in my hands than the remote control.”Charlaine Harris

It was a sad and disappointing day when I discovered my Universal Remote Control did not, in fact, control the universe. (Not even remotely.)”Darynda Jones

“AT&T (American Telephone & Telegraph) is now offering a new service that allows you to pay your bills through your TV screen by using your remote control. So instead of saying, ‘The check’s in the mail,’ people are going to say, ‘Hey, I wanted to pay, but I couldn’t find the remote.’”Jay Leno

“Nine percent (of people) would give up sex for the remote control. (The other) 91 percent has already given up sex for the remote control!”—Jay Leno

“Life does not have a remote control. You need to get up and change it yourself.”—Damien L. Malcolm

“Life is like a very long TV show, without a remote control.'”—Hussein Nishah

“You want to see how devoted we are to comfort? Walk into the average American home and hide the remote control, and watch what happens. Life without the remote control is an unbearable burden for the average American family.”—John Ortberg Jr.

“(A) digital presentation is just television in public. We’re all just getting together and watching TV without pointing the remote control at the screen.”—Quentin Tarantino

“Men are simple things. They can survive a whole weekend with only three things: beer, boxer shorts, and batteries for the remote control.”—Daniel Tosh

“Remote controls are quite handy. They let you see that there’s nothing worth watching on TV a lot faster.”— Melanie White

“Why do you press harder on a remote control when you know the battery’s dead?”—Steven Wright

“Life is like a very long TV show without a remote control.”—Unattributed

Remote Control and Computing

As already demonstrated above, computers are routinely used for remote control. Here are a few more telling examples.

  • The Mars Rover contains sophisticated computers that receive commands from the Earth and translate them into actions on Mars.
  • The control systems for electrical grids and other infrastructure are called SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) receive commands via a network and then configure the infrastructure accordingly.
  • Amazon’s robot warehouses send commands to robots that then move goods around in giant warehouses so that they can be shipped rapidly.
  • Weapons systems in the military, notably drones, use remote control for targeting and firing. 

In these and many other cases (the list is almost endless), the common factor is that a local computer receives commands from a remote computer, then translates the commands into local implementation.

At a more technical level, software-defined networks (SDN) receive general commands about desired capacity between various network endpoints and then configure the network routers to provide the needed capacity on the appropriate links.

In computing, the abbreviation RC can certainly mean remote control in the sense of a TV remote control. However, RC has a number of other interesting meanings. Here are a few of them.

  • RC (remote control). In a general sense, RC is defined as anything that can be controlled wirelessly by a remote device.  As noted earlier, the first such RC device was patented by Nikola Tesla in 1898.
  • RC (release candidate). A release candidate is a version of a software program still being tested but is nevertheless ready for release. If no major issues are found in the release candidate, then it is offered (released) to the public. When software enters the RC state of the software life cycle, it is often referred to as “going silver.” The next stage would be “going gold.”
  • RC (remote connection, also known as remote access). A device for accessing a shared resource. Example: A user’s home computer is remotely connected to their company’s network in order to read e-mails.

Another useful term isrc (not capitalized)l. This is a file name extension that stands for run commands (run control). In Unix-like operating systems such as Linux, an rc file contains a series of statements or commands, one per line, to be executed or evaluated by the shell. Its purpose is to configure the shell to function in a customized way. The same idea applies to other programs as well; for example, “.mailrc” initializes and customizes the mail program for the specific user environment software.

Another useful computer term involving the concept of remote control is “remote-control software.”  Remote-control software (RCS) is defined as programming in a central or server computer that is used to control other computers (or their users) at a distance, either under the control of an administrator or at the request of the user. Although RCS (remote-control software) existed before the World Wide Web (for remote diagnosis of computer problems and other purposes), the Web has essentially created a platform on which anyone can build a new remote-control application that can reach millions of computers and their users.

RCS is generally divided into classes of applications:

  • For use within a private network, such as an intranet. Here it can be used to configure and administer all computers from a central point.
  • For use on a public network, such as the World Wide Web. Here it can allow users to benefit from services such as name lookup or let users arrange to have their files backed up automatically once a day. In education, the public network can permit creation of a classroom computer system in which one PC becomes the “master” of student computers charged with automatically reconfiguring the student computers or turning them off at the end of the school day.

Returning to the ubiquitous (and indispensable) TV remote control, which kicked off this whole discussion, here’s some good news. The pain, angst, and horror of losing a TV remote or discovering that for some reason it isn’t working can be easily banished. There are two basic ways.

  • You can have a spare remote. Costing only a few dollars, if put next to the TV set, a spare remote will always be readily available when a crisis occurs.
  • You can program your computer devices (laptop, tablet, smartphone, etc) to act as a TV remote. The exact method of converting a smartphone into a TV remote depends on the type of smartphone, the operating system, the specific smartphone model, and a number of other factors, but is generally quite easy.

Here’s some more good news. It is possible to convert your TV remote to control numerous other devices. Moreover, when it acts as an interface, the TV itself serves as a remote control for a streaming service. But these are subjects for another blog.