The first remote control patent was filed by Nikola Tesla in 1893, though originally remote control technology was intended for the military. Remote technology was used during both World Wars on boats, torpedoes, and submarines, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that TV remote controls began to appear in different incarnations. It took inventors about 30 years to hit on the perfect technology, and all in one remote controls were not available until the 1980s. Here are just a few of the duds:
The first TV remote controls were not wireless, as in the Lazy Bone, introduced by Zenith in 1950. This remote only turned the television on and off and changed the channels, and was connected to the TV by a long, unwieldy, cable. Customers did not like this remote, reporting that it caused frequent trips and falls when walking, and the cord made replacement TV remotes impossible.
Also released by Zenith, in 1955, this remote worked via directing flashes of light to four photocells located on the corners of the TV. It had increased functionality, turning the sound and picture on and off, as well as changing the channels. However, any light would interfere with the device, cause channels to change on their own when it was particularly sunny out.
Zenith Space Command
The Space Command television remote controls worked via ultrasonic waves that controlled receivers built into the television. All remotes did not require batteries, relying on the ultrasonic sounds made by aluminum bars of different lengths in the back of the device. Released in 1956, it stayed the dominant technology for 25 years. Since humans could not hear the ultrasonic pitches, this device is what earned remotes the nickname “clicker.”
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the current infrared technology for all remotes was widely adopted, but once it was the ease of use and functions really made infrared remotes take off. In 1965, only an estimated 1 out of 20 television sets was sold with a remote control. By 1985, half of sets sold came with one, and by 1988, 75% were sold with a remote. These days, every single TV set comes with a remote control or two, and there are an estimated 335 million functioning TV remotes in the United States today.