Thousands of new inventions are registered (or stolen) and reach the global marketplace every year, but only a tiny handful become staples of modern life. The telegraph, the telephone, the lightbulb, and radio were each breakthroughs which had tremendous impacts on today’s culture, but one de facto standard of modern life probably rests in your hand every day: the television remote control.
Robert Adler, the co-inventor of the wireless television remote control, died of heart failure last week in Boise, Idaho, at the age of 93. Born in Vienna in 1913, Adler earned more than 180 patents during his long career (applying for the most recent one involving touch-screen technology on February 1, 2007), and spent six decades with Zenith Electronics, joining its research division in 1941 and eventually retiring as research vice president in 1979, although he stayed on as a technical consultant until Zenith’s merger with South Korea’s LG Electronics in 1999. (Zenith was the last of the original American television manufacturers.)
Amongst consumer electronics users, Adler and Zenith colleague Eugene Polley, however, will go down in history as the inventors of the wireless television remote. Zenith was making a “Lazy Bones” tethered television remote control as early as 1950, enabling users to change the channel and turn televisions on and off from across the room, but (as we all know) the cable proved a nuisance—and even a safety hazard for viewers trying to cross the living room. By 1955 Zenith was marketing a “Flashmatic” wireless remote which basically aimed a beam of light at photo cells in corners of the television cabinet. This design meant that you could change channels with a flashlight instead of an expensive, proprietary remote…but it also means the channel changed when, say, sunlight reflected off a coffee table.
Adler’s innovation was to use high-frequency sound to communicate with the TV. The initial ultrasonic remotes were purely mechanical devices which struck tuned aluminum rods inside the remote—the famous “clicker.” In the 1960s, Adler developed new remotes which produced the ultrasonic signals electronically, a system which was the standard for remote control technology until the development of infrared systems in the 1980s.
Adler also developed the “gated-beam” vacuum tube which eliminated significant amounts of sound interference (and reduced production costs) in television receivers; he was also responsible for a synchronizing circuit which improved television reception in poor-signal areas, and won the IEEE Edison Medal in 1980. But if your fanny seems extra wide today—and your coffee table is crammed with a small herd of devices sporting a myriad of colorful buttons—you have Robert Adler to thank.