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The History of the TV Remote

The TV remote came about out of a deep-seated frustration with TV ads. In the 1950s, the president of Zenith Electronics, Eugene F. McDonald, tasked his engineers with creating a device that would allow him to mute ads or skip to a different channel while they were on. A mechanical engineer named Eugene Polley came up with the first TV remote, called the Flashmatic. It was released in 1955 and changed the way we relate to TV. It’s worth noting that while channel-changing devices had existed in the past, they were attached to the TV and, crucially, did not include a mute function. The Flashmatic solved these problems, but created a new one: it worked by utilizing light sensors in the four corners of the TV, but unfortunately, light sources other than the beam from the Flashmatic could affect the TV, and bright rays of sunlight often turned it on or off, or changed the channels. The Flashmatic was also very expensive, so Zenith had an electrical engineer and physicist named Robert Adler create the Space Command, which used ultrasonic frequencies to control the TV. It was successful, and ultrasonic remotes remained popular until the 1980s, when infrared remotes that could handle more functionality took over. As more and more devices and functions were added to TV culture, including on-screen TV guides and various gaming systems, more and more functionality was needed in the TV remote, which became more and more complex. (A piece for Slate written in 2015 clocked 92 buttons on a TV remote, but noted that far fewer than that were typically used.) Today, TV remotes are once again trending toward the simpler. Wireless devices can take verbal commands, eliminating the need for many buttons. Some smart devices even make it possible to control your TV without the use of a handheld remote at all.

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