Spring 2008

The Recline of Western Civilization

The story of the remote control

Laura Nahmias and Nicholas Nauman

At a private showing for investors held at Madison Square Garden, modern history’s favorite maligned genius, Nikola Tesla, first presented his “Method of and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vehicle or Vehicles.” Using a radio transmitter to steer, Tesla guided a small boat over a pond. After receiving the US patent for his device later that year, Telsa announced his “devil automata” in an interview with the New York newspaper The Sun. News of the invention quickly spread, and his friend Mark Twain wrote him a perspicacious letter soon afterwards from Vienna: “Have you Austrian and English patents on that destructive terror which you have been inventing? And if so, won’t you set a price upon them and concession me to sell them?” Twain predicted that the armies of the world would bow down before such profound technology, and the remote control would “make war thenceforth impossible.”[1] After a prolonged scandal of intellectual property and propriety, popular credit for radio technology went to Guglielmo Marconi. Tesla retreated into doleful eccentricity, claimed to receive commands from outer space, and spent his latter days with a particularly beloved white pigeon.[2]

A photograph of Leonardo Torres Quevedo's 'Telekino.'
Spanish mathematician Leonardo Torres Quevedo built what he called the “Telekino.” A remote control similar in mechanical function to Tesla’s, the Telekino employed its own telegraphic code to signal commands. The series of clicks were first demonstrated for use with a child’s tricycle, making it possible to animate the vehicle without the necessity of an energetic rider.[3] Torres Quevedo then tested his Telekino with engine-driven boats in Madrid’s Real Casa de Campo pond and in the Bilbao Estuary where he “successfully took full control of a dinghy with a crew of eight at distances of over 1.25 miles.”[4] He abandoned his intention to use the technology to pilot submarine torpedoes when he was denied funding for his project by the Spanish government.

A photograph of the Philco Corporation's 'Mystery Control.'
The Philco Corporation released its “Mystery Control,” touted as “the Most Thrilling Invention since Radio Itself! ... It’s truely (sic) unbelievable! It’s mystifying! That’s why it’s called Mystery Control!” The remote, a handheld electromagnetic oscillator, sold well, but after a few years, it became apparent that people’s radio listening habits did not require such a device, and Philco stopped its production.[5]

Germans developed the first remote-guided missiles, named V1 and V2, abbreviations for Vergeltungswaffen or “weapons of vengeance.” An early test model of the V2 recovered by the British was outfitted with a radio transmitter, leading the British to wrongly assume that the missile could be stopped by merely scrambling radio waves.

Eugene Macdonald, self-described “Commander” of the Zenith Electronics Corporation, developed the “Lazy Bones” remote control, equipped with a mute button to combat his personal pet peeve—commercials. Unfortunately, “Lazy Bones” connected to the TV via a cumbersome cable stretched across the living room floor. Deemed a hazard, the technology was shelved.[6]

An advertisement for Zenith's 'Flashmatic.'
Searching for a wireless remote technology, Zenith engineer Eugene Polley experiments with light-sensitive controls, and in 1955 the company distributed the Flashmatic. Basically a high-powered flashlight, the Flashmatic signaled photo cells in each corner of the TV set. Consumers quickly discovered, however, that any light source—be it a lamp, passing headlights, or a fireplace—could affect the controls. A sunny afternoon caused the Flashmatic-equipped TV to go haywire.[7]

A photograph of the Zenith Space Command.
Dr. Robert Adler redirected Zenith’s technological focus from light to sound, leading to the 1956 introduction of the first “practical” wireless remote—the Zenith Space Command. By clicking the switches on a small, battery-free console, colliding aluminum rods emitted ultrasonic vibrations to reliably signal the TV on and off, change channels, and, finally, mute commercials. Though the Space Command required an expensive, elaborate vacuum tube receiver, there was “Nothing between you and the set but space![8] The “clicker’s” technology successfully facilitated immobility for the next quarter century.[9]

ca. 1978
Formerly the province of the military, infrared technology replaced ultrasonics as the industry and living room standard. Instead of sound at too high a frequency to hear, remotes now began to use light at too low a frequency to see.

Individual Americans watched an average of four-and-a-half hours of television per day.[10] Sports Illustrated magazine named Eugene Polley and Robert Adler “Men of the Millenium.”[11]

Mitch Altman, a San Francisco electronics prankster-cum-philosopher, invented and marketed the TV-B-Gone Universal Remote Control. In a ploy to “give people a choice” they may not have realized they were missing, the TV-B-Gone can turn off almost any television in restaurants and bars, waiting areas, and living rooms the world over. Altman continues to report excellent sales.[12]

Vadim Fishkin, Lost & Found / Remote Control, 2006. A remote control for the world at large. Courtesy Galerija Gregor Podnar, Ljubljana / Berlin.
  1. Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), pp. 160–162.
  2. Fritz E. Froehlich, The Froehlich/ Kent Encyclopedia of Telecommunications (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 1997), pp. 39–40. See also pbs.org/tesla/ll/ll_poevis.html.
  3. Antonio Yuste & Magdalena Palma, “The First Wireless Remote Control: the Telekine of Torres Quevado,” in Conference on the History of Electronics (Bletchley Park: IEEE, 2004), pp. 1–15.
  4. Antonio Yuste & Magdalena Palma, “Scanning Our Past From Madrid: Leonardo Torres Quevedo,” Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 93, no. 7, July 2005, pp. 1379–1382.
  5. philcorepairbench.com/mystery/history.htm [link defunct—Eds.]. Accessed 18 February 2008.
  6. Steven D. Strauss, The Big Idea (New York: Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2002), pp. 10–14.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Mike Michael, Reconnecting Culture, Technology, and Nature: From Society to Heterogeneity (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 102.
  9. Jeremy Butler, Television: Critical Methods and Applications (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002), p. 276.
  10. nielsenmedia.com/nc/portal/site/Public/menuitem.55dc65b4a7d5adff 3f6593614 [link defunct—Eds.]. Accessed 18 February 2008.
  11. Strauss, The Big Idea, op. cit., p. 13.
  12. Interview with Altman conducted by the authors, 18 February 2008. See also cornfieldelectronics.com.

Laura Nahmias is an editorial assistant of Cabinet.

Nicholas Nauman is a writer based in San Francisco.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.