Stewart Schley
Stewart Schley
In the late 1950s, when the U.S. was transfixed by the Space Age, a common way to make a new product appealing was to give it a name that had to do with space exploration. Thus, a washing machine was christened "Starmatic," even though it was surely to remain rooted on earth for the duration of its serviceable life, and cars were shipped from factories with the nameplate of "Mercury" despite the fact they were bound to travel highways only on the most familiar of planets.

It was not a surprise, then, that Zenith Electronics Corp. chose the same brand motif when, in 1957, it began advertising a new sort of gadget. "Space Command" was the chosen name for a four-button device about the size of a portable transistor radio of the era. Its purpose was conveyed in a magazine advertisement featuring the popular comedy duo of George Burns and Gracie Allen.

"Look out, Gracie! With Zenith Space Command TV, I can change programs from across the room," the advertisement's headline said. The prevailing image is Burns himself, captured via photograph in an animated manner that suggests the suave civility of a modern man on the move. In the ad, Burns' index finger rests lightly atop the fourth button in a neat row along the gadget's lower horizon. It is a place the male index finger would come to know intimately over the succeeding decades.

The invention most instrumental in unleashing television's interactive era is not the digital video recorder, the OCAP specification, the Java applet or the click-through banner ad. It is the remote control. In 1957, as it began marketing the Space Command TV system, Zenith had introduced the interactive TV age.

No, you could not summon on-demand movies, pause live TV shows or engage in e-commerce transactions. Not then. But the moment when the remote control showed up in the living room was the moment when television became the servant of the viewer in ways the industry was not yet prepared to confront. Interactivity at its core describes a relationship in which the medium responds to the wishes of the user, carrying out commands and delivering requested content at the press of a button. Zenith's Space Command TV fit the bill. There might be only three channels of television airing simultaneously, but by pointing the thing toward the TV and pressing a single button, you could command the set to display something new, and it responded beautifully. Thus was a revolution begun.

The evolution of the TV remote control to the prolific navigational device it is today (there is now said to be an average of 5.5 of the things scattered within the typical U.S. household) owes much to an inventive Zenith engineer, Dr. Robert Adler, who came up with the idea of using ultrasonic frequencies as a way to improve on the clumsy wired remotes that Zenith had begun to sell in 1955.

Zenith's first TV remote was branded, perhaps prophetically, "Lazy Bones." Although it allowed viewers to turn on the set without rising from the sofa, customers complained of tripping over a wire that connected it to the TV set. A year later Zenith introduced the "Flash-matic," a wireless remote approach that required users to direct a light beam toward one of four photo-cells embedded within the TV screen. Zenith had done away with the wire, but there were other flaws. Sunshine spilling into the room could cause the channel to change as if an invisible alien had taken control of the set.

Adler brought the remote to a new dimension. His ultrasonic Space Command unit used aluminum rods that, when struck by an internal trigger, produced high-frequency tones inaudible to humans. The first Space Command used four rods: one to turn the power on or off, one to turn the sound on or off, and one each for channel up and channel down. The ultrasonic approach proved enduring. It would serve as the essential platform for TV remote controls until the early 1980s, when infrared frequencies began to supplant ultrasonic waves as the wireless spectrum of choice.

Although ubiquitous today, TV remotes took some time to attain their prolific popularity. They reached their market tipping point around the mid-1980s, when for the first time, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, more TVs were sold with remote controls than without them.

Today, of course, the remote is taken largely for granted. Yet the idea that emerging interactive TV applications could thrive without it seems ludicrous. Imagine that instead of pressing a button to roam the day's news headlines or summon an on-demand movie, you instead had to rise from the couch, walk over to the set and fiddle with a control panel. They'd still call it "interactive TV," one supposes, except that in this instance it would seem as if the TV is controlling the viewer. And that, Gracie, simply wouldn't do.

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Stewart Schley writes about media and technology from Englewood, Colo.
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