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A short history of the remote control

Posted: 17 Dec 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:wireless device? remote control? RF design?

By Kjartan Furset
Nordic Semiconductor

The remote control was the first truly wireless device to enter the home. It was co-invented by Robert Adler, who died earlier this year aged 93. While Adler was a prolific innovator, responsible for over 180 patents in the fields of communications and electronics, he is famous for his remote control.

In the early 1950s, Adler was working for Zenith, a US consumer electronics company. Asked to 'find a new way for television viewers to change channels without getting out of their chairs or tripping over a cable,' Adler and his colleagues came up with two designs.

Fellow engineer Eugene Polley put together the "Flashmatic" remote control in 1955, a wireless remote based on light, while Adler's "Space Commander" used ultrasonic waves and was introduced the following year.

Recently, PC World published its "50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years." The Zenith Space Commander 300 made the list at number 21.

However, the remote control concept precedes Adler's invention by over six decades; one of the earliest examples was developed in 1893 by Nikola Tesla, and described in his U.S. Patent 613809 as a "Method of an Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vehicle or Vehicles."

In 1903, Leonardo Torres Quevedo presented his "Telekino" at the Paris Academy of Science before obtaining patents in France, Spain, the UK and the U.S. The Telekino consisted of a remotely controlled robot executing commands transmitted by radio.

By the late 1930s, several radio manufacturers offered remote controls for some of their higher-end models but most were connected to the device being controlled by wires. The exception was Philco's battery-operated low-frequency radio device of 1939 dubbed the "Mystery Control."

The invention of the transistor in 1947 made possible the cheaper ultrasonic electronic remotes such as Adler's Space Commander that used a piezoelectric crystal oscillating at a frequency near or above the upper threshold of human hearing. Unfortunately, the receiving microphone was often triggered by naturally ultrasonic signals.

The impetus for a more complex type of television remote control came in the late 1970s. Most commercial remote controls at the time had a limited number of functions, such as "next station," "previous station," "increase volume" or "decrease volume."

Unfortunately, this type of control didn't meet the needs of the teletext sets being introduced at that time where pages were identified with three-digit numbers. A remote control to select teletext pages needed many more buttons.

This led to the development of IR remotes that could support the complex protocols required to control a larger number of functions. ITT was one of the first companies to launch prototypes in the late seventies and later gave its name to the ITT protocol for IR communications.

The forerunner of today's so-called "universal" remote controls was developed in the eighties by Steve Wozniak of Apple. He started a company that designed the "Controller of Remote Equipment" (CORE) unit, released in 1987.

The CORE unit could "learn" remote signals from other different devices. The CORE unit never made a huge impact of the market. It was much too cumbersome for the average user to program but was popular with those who worked out how to program it.

Most universal remotes sold today are device based. When using this type of remote the user presses a button associated with the desired device to control and then uses the remaining buttons to control that single device.

To start controlling another device the user presses a different device button and the remote then starts sending command to the new device. Some universal remotes work on the concept of activities.

When a particular activity is selected, the universal remote sends out the necessary commands to various devices to turn on and configure the device required for the desired activity. One of the most popular activity based remotes is the Logitech Harmony product.

Remotes have come a long way since Adler's Space Commander. But it's not all good news; devices now have dozens of buttons and certain commands demand complex button pressing sequences.

Worse still, to control the increasing number of home entertainment devices, several remotes may need to be used sequentially but, as there are no accepted interface guidelines, the process is increasingly cumbersome.

Before his death, Robert Adler himself noted how confusing, unwieldy and frustrating the multiplying remotes had become.

About the author
Kjartan Furset
is a Hong-Kong based Senior Application Engineer with Oslo, Norway-based Nordic Semiconductor.

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