The remote control

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In 1898 Nikola Tesla remotely controlled a boat by wireless means to the amazement of onlookers at Madison Square Garden. Tesla called his boat a “teleautomaton”, one of the first demonstrations of remote control. Leap forward 58 years to 1956 when engineer Robert Adler and the Zenith corporation launched the Zenith Space Command, a wireless remote control for televisions that used ultrasonic tones to change volume and channels.

When the user pushed a button on the Space Commander, it struck one of four xylophone-like bars and emitted different fundamental frequencies at ultrasonic harmonics. Listening circuits in the television detected these sounds and interpreted them as channel-up, channel-down, sound-on/off, and power-on/off. With each button press, the user heard and felt a “click”. Over time, we referred to these as clickers.

I remember well these clickers. My grandpa Bill had one and I was allowed to click away to my heart’s content. Fortunately, there were only three television channels at the time so with each click, one of three network programs appeared: NBC, CBS, ABC.

I could not even imagine how this magic worked. It was truly as if from some mysterious space command.

Today we take for granted the magic of wireless everything, but for some of us old enough to remember, the transition from manually turning the channel selector knob on the television to clicking it from afar was nothing short of a miracle ushering in the space age.