The rise of the remote – From standing up for yourself to sitting back
South Africa was fairly late to introducing television as regular fixtures in most homes compared to the rest of the world. In fact, the SABC only launched its national TV service in 1971 – a good many years after most of Europe, the United States and even some less developed countries in Africa. Back then, remote controls were not common. And you may hear many South Africans who were around in the 70s and 80s saying, “I was the remote control”, meaning that they had to manually get up and switch the TV on and off or change channels.
Now, just about every TV on the shelf has a remote control included in its box, as do many audio devices and even car audio systems. CZ Electronics takes a quick look at the rise of the remote control – the one item most homes today are not without in some form or another and a source of great frustration whenever it is accidentally misplaced.
The gradual evolution of the remote control
Remote control technology has been around for a while. In 1893, Nikola Tesla had already patented a remote control device and the Germans even used remote control boats in World War 1. In the 1940s, remote controls began appearing in homes – particularly as garage door openers.
The first TV remote control, launched in 1950 by the Zenith Radio Corporation, was branded the “Lazy Bone.” This innovation could switch the TV on and off and channels but it was quite different to the remotes we have today, in that it had to be attached to the TV set with a cumbersome wire, which often resulted in people tripping over the chord.
Zenith went back to the drawing board in June 1956, the “Flash-matic” wireless TV remote was released. It was created by Zenith engineer Eugene Polley and was the first wireless TV remote available to the public in the US. The Flash-matic worked using four photocells – one in each corner of the TV screen. These were activated using a directional flashlight that triggered the four functions the unit was able to control: picture and sound on or off and turning the channel tuner dial clockwise or counter-clockwise. The problem with the Flash-matic was that it didn’t operate that well in sunlight, which could hit the cells and randomly change channels.
Zenith followed this with the “Zenith Space Command”, which used ultrasonics, comprising four aluminium rods that transmitted high-frequency sounds, responded to by a receiver unit in the TV. This remained the most common type of remote control until the early 80s, when infra-red controls took over.
Infra-red and wireless today
Canadian company Viewstar developed the first infra-red TV remote in 1980, which used a low-frequency light beam to operate various electronic products. This approach was soon adopted by other companies and has evolved considerably over the years. Many devices today still use it.
Now, remote controls come in a few variations. Bluetooth remote devices are often used to operate TVs, set top boxes, gaming devices and more. And other devices, like cellphones. can operate smart devices using wi-fi. We live in a world where nobody has to “be” the remote control anymore – that is, unless the remote happens to be stuck somewhere under the couch.
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