Robert Adler and the strange story of the TV remote

Robert Adler, co-inventor of the TV remote, passed away at 93 last Thursday. Though Adler’s passing is getting ample and well-deserved attention, the story of the TV remote actually is a classic tale of innovation that involves three people: Adler, his co-inventor Eugene Polley and their boss, Zenith founder, Eugene MacDonald. Polley constructed the first cordless remote, the Zenith “Flash-matic,” a battery-powered flashlight gizmo shaped like a Buck Rogers raygun (see photo below) that the viewer used to trigger photo-sensors on the TV set to change channels and control volume.

Flash-matic was better than its wired predecessors (imagine a long cable from TV to couch) when it hit the market in 1955, but it was unreliable, as ambient light often overwhelmed the signal and misdirected photons from house lighting caused the TV to behave in whimsical, unpredictable ways. Adler came up with a solution that solved the problem and even eliminated the batteries. Instead of light, his remote used sound: when the viewer hit the spring-loaded button on the SpaceCommander, it tapped a metal bar tuned to a specific frequency picked up by a microphone in the TV. Because the tones were above normal human hearing, the remote was silent, though some users claimed the remotes drove their dogs crazy.

The SpaceCommander (picture below) arrived in 1956 and utterly changed the way people watched TV. Some eulogists have claimed that the remote ushered in the age of the couch potato, but they have it backwards. Before the remote, all viewers were couch potatoes because it was too hard to get up and change the channel. The SpaceCommander turned viewers into channel surfers, and thus profoundly changed the nature of TV viewing into the first primitive interactive media experience.

This in turn profoundly changed the nature of TV programming, as producers scrambled to create content so engaging (what we call “sticky” today) that viewers would stay put. And here is the ultimate irony of the TV remote, and where Eugene McDonald comes in. Polley and Adler were set to their task by McDonald who desperately wanted a remote in hopes that giving users the ability to easily change channels would destroy the economics of TV commercials, which McDonald detested. Much as Alfred Nobel hoped his invention, dynamite, would make war too terrible to fight, McDonald hoped the remote would destroy the economics of advertising and force the switch to subscription-based TV. Of course, just like Nobel’s invention, the remote had precisely the opposite effect as advertisers learned to appeal to channel surfers with ever catchier jingles and images. The result was TV as we know it, a visual confetti feast for the first thumb-tribe, the pioneers of interactivity, the TV channel surfers.

Zenith Flashmatic