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November 9, 2019

Zenith Flash-Matic, the First Wireless TV Remote

Channel surfing was born more than six decades ago. The first TV remote control, called the “Lazy Bones,” was developed in 1950 by Zenith (then known as Zenith Radio Corporation and now a wholly owned subsidiary of LG Electronics USA).

The Lazy Bones used a cable that ran from the TV set to the viewer. A motor in the TV set operated the tuner through the remote control. By pushing buttons on the remote control, viewers rotated the tuner clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on whether they wanted to change the channel to a higher or lower number. The remote control included buttons that turned the TV on and off.

The Flash-Matic by Zenith.

The toy-like Flash-Matic by Zenith was the industry’s first wireless TV remote, and ran off of two C batteries.

Although customers liked having remote control of their television, they complained that people tripped over the unsightly cable that meandered across the living room floor.

Zenith engineer Eugene J. Polley invented the “Flash-Matic,” which represented the industry’s first wireless TV remote. Introduced in 1955, Flash-Matic operated by means of four photo cells, one in each corner of the TV screen.

This diagram from the user guide for a 1955 Zenith shows the points of contact for the light beam. The upper left corner controls the counterclockwise channel selector, the upper right controls the clockwise channel selector, the lower right is the picture on/off, and the lower right turns the sound on and off.

The front cover of the official operators guide for the original 1955 Zenith, which shipped with the Flash-Matic.

“Simply aim the beam of light from the Flash-Gun into the ‘slot’ or window on the television escutcheon containing the control to be operated.”

The operator’s guide tells how you can change channels clockwise or counter clockwise by aiming the Flash-Matic light gun at the photo receptors.

The viewer used a highly directional flashlight to activate the four control functions, which turned the picture and sound on and off and changed channels by turning the tuner dial clockwise and counter-clockwise.

Flash-Matic pioneered the concept of wireless TV remote control, although it had some limitations. It was a simple device that had no protection circuits and, if the TV sat in an area in which the sun shone directly on it, the tuner might start rotating.

This advertisement is for the 1955 Zenith Flash-Matic Tuning, the first wireless remote. Touting the ability to turn off “annoying commercials” with the the futuristic beam of light, Zenith’s ad says “You have to see it to believe it!”

This photo illustration ad for the Flash-Matic remote control, designed by Eugene Polley, shows the beam of light and the photo receptors in the corners of the television.

The first set sold with wireless remote control.

The first set sold with wireless remote control.

The improved “Zenith Space Command” remote control went into commercial production in 1956. This time, Zenith engineer Robert Adler (1913–2007) designed the Space Command based on ultrasonics. Ultrasonic remote controls remained the dominant design for the next 25 years, and, as the name suggests, they worked using ultrasound waves.

The Space Command transmitter used no batteries. Inside the transmitter were four lightweight aluminum rods that emitted high-frequency sounds when struck at one end. Each rod was a different length to create a different sound that controlled a receiver unit built into the television.

The “Space Command” system used aluminum rods, similar to tuning forks, which were struck by hammers toggled by the buttons on the device, producing high-frequency tones that would then control functions on the television set. By the 1960s, Zenith remotes began using ultrasonic signals, a technology which was used for the next 25 years, until being replaced by infrared systems capable of more complex commands.

The first Space Command units were quite expensive for the consumer, because the device used six vacuum tubes in the receiver units that raised the price of a television by 30%. In the early 1960s, after the invention of the transistor, remote controls decreased in price and in size, as did all electronics. Zenith modified the Space Command remote control using the new benefits of transistor technology (and still using ultrasonics), creating small hand-held and battery-operated remote controls. Over nine million ultrasonic remote controls were sold.

Infrared devices replaced ultrasonic remote controls in the early 1980s.

2 comments:

  1. the knobs on the tv look like eyes.

    ReplyDelete
  2. THINGS USED TO LOOK BETTER IN THE PAST (SORRY FOR CAPS, I'M PARTIALLY SIGHTED). AS A CHILD LIVING IN THE REMOTE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS WE HAD ONE OF THE FIRST COLOUR TVS BACK IN THE SEVENTIES. IT CAME IN A HUGE WOODEN CABINET AND TOOK FOUR MEN TO CARRY IT INTO THE LIVINGROOM AND PLACE IT IN THE CORNER WHERE IT STAYED TIL IT DIED, MANY YEARS LATER (THINGS ALSO USED TO LAST LONGER!) AND THE FIRST SHOW I WATCHED ON IT WAS STAR TREK. INSTRUCTIONS ALSO WERE EASIER TO FOLLOW. I SAY THIS HAVING JUST PUT UP A NEW GREENHOUSE AND A BIKE TRAILER, BOTH OF WHOM HAD INCOMPREHENSIBLE INSTRUCTIONS, NONE OF THE PICTURES MATCHED THE ACTUAL PRODUCTS AND I PUT BOTH TOGETHER BY GUESSING...YES, I'M OLD, AND YES, I MISS THE GOOD OLD DAYS. AND NO, I'M NOT ASHAMED OF IT.

    ReplyDelete

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