Eugene F. McDonald, Jr., hated TV commercials. Television was a new medium in the late 1940s, with few shows and still fewer channels, but McDonald already felt it was being ruined by advertisers. Unlike the untold legions who have shared his opinion, then and now, McDonald was in a position to do something about it. He was the president of Zenith Electronics Corporation. McDonald ordered his engineers go to work on a device that would allow viewers to mute the damn things, thus making ads unprofitable and leading to their demise. Or so he hoped.
Zenith introduced the first television remote control in 1950. Presciently named the "Lazy Bones," the device was attached by a wire to the television set. When consumers complained that whatever convenience the Lazy Bones offered was negated by the number of times they tripped over its cord, Zenith's designers went back to the drawing board. This time they came up with the wireless Flashmatic (1955), which aimed a beam of light at sensors located on the set. Alas, sunny days wreaked havoc with the system.
But Zenith's intrepid techs were not about to be outfoxed by a wayward sunbeam. The Space Command remote was introduced the following year. Using ultrasonic waves, the Space Command needed no batteries or wires. "Is it magic?" read an early ad, "It's like nothing you have ever seen before—anywhere!" A 1961 patent for a "tiny" microphone (miniature by standards of the day; photos show a device about the size of a paperclip) led to improved remote control performance, hence the promotional film clip above and its emphasis on seven different functions (among them tint, fine tuning, and color).
There was a drawback, however. A tabletop television set plus Space Command remote control cost $259.95; a console model was $550 (roughly $2,000 and $4,000 respectively, in today's money). Certainly, price was one of the reasons it took so long for remote controls to infiltrate American households. According to the New York Times, as late as 1976, only 9.5% homes had one.
Originally a luxury toy, today's infrared remotes are indispensable and omnipresent. Zenith estimates that as of 2000, 99% of television sets and 100% of DVD players are equipped with them. Couch potatoes everywhere salute you, Eugene F. McDonald!