Happy Birthday to the Man who makes our TV set a Little less Remote

Posted by martin.parnell |
Happy Birthday to the Man who makes our TV set a Little less Remote

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog about those handy little things that, for some of us make life a little easier. I was reminded of this when I noted that today, December 4th is the birthday of inventor, Robert Adler.

According to Wikipedia, Adler was born in Vienna in 1913, the son of Jenny (née Herzmark), a doctor, and Max Adler, a social theorist.  He earned a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Vienna in 1937 and, following Austria's annexation by Nazi Germany in 1939, Dr. Adler, who was Jewish, left the country. He traveled first to Belguim, then to England, where he acted on the advice of friends, and immigrated to the United States. He began working at Zenith Electronics in the research division in 1941. In his lifetime, Adler was granted 58 US patents.

The invention Adler is best known for is a wireless remote control for televisions. While not the first remote control, its underlying technology was a vast improvement over previous remote control system.

Eugene Polley, anther engineer at Zenith  invented the first wireless remote control, replacing the signal cable based remote control devices, which never were a success. The Flash-Matic used directional flashlight in the transmitter device, and photo cells in the television set itself. One of the major shortcomings of this technology was that if the television set was exposed to direct sunlight, it could inadvertently trigger one of the remote control functions. The company president sent the engineers back to the drawing board to come up with a better solution. 

A system based on radio waves was briefly considered but rejected because the signals could easily travel through walls and could inadvertently change the channel on a neighbour's television. Furthermore, the marketing people at Zenith desired a remote control which did not require batteries, as it was perceived at the time that if the battery died, the customer might think something was wrong with the television set itself.

Adler's solution was to use sound waves to transmit signals to the TV. The first remote control he developed, the "Space Command", used aluminum rods, analogous to tuning forks, struck by hammers toggled by the buttons on the device, to produce high-frequency tones that would be interpreted to control functions on the television set.

In the 1960s, Adler modified the remote control to use ultrasonic signals, a technology which went on to be used in television sets manufactured for the next 25 years, until replaced by infrared systems which could transmit more complex commands, although, ironically, they still needed batteries to work.

Present-day remote controls are commonly consumer infrared devices which send digitally-coded pulses of infrared radiation to control functions such as power, volume, channels, playback, track change, heat, fan speed, or other features varying from device to device. Remote controls for these devices are usually small wireless handheld objects with an array of buttons for adjusting various settings such as television channel, track number, and volume.

An article in the New Yorker, reported a story about one member of the Z-Wave Alliance, an association of about two hundred and fifty so-called “home-control” manufacturers and service providers.  This past August, he climbed nearly twenty-seven thousand feet to the peak of Cho Oyu, in the Himalayas. With the push of a few buttons, he used his smartphone to adjust thethermostat, flip the lights, and unlock and lock the doors of his New Jersey home. 

Remote control has continually evolved and advanced and now include Bluetooth connectivity, motion sensor-enabled capabilities and voice control.

So, the next time you use that remote control to record your favourite program, let you skip through all those TV ads or simply turn up the volume, from the comfort of your armchair, give a thought to Robert Adler.

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