The dark and dismal days before the invention of the TV remote control -

The dark and dismal days before the invention of the TV remote control

I was chatting to Daniel Guidera the other day. Daniel is the graphic artist who creates the images for the EE Times cartoon caption contest (see Meet the Man Behind the EETimes Cartoon Caption Competition).

During our conversation, Daniel informed me that he's a member of a gaggle of graphic artists who search out, share, and discuss the graphical nuances of old adverts (hey, everyone is entitled to have a hobby).

A few days ago, Daniel shared this link from the History's Dumpster website, whose mission it is to save glorious trash, kitsch, music, fashion, food, history, ephemera, and other memorable and forgotten, famous and infamous pop culture junk of yesterday and today from the landfill of time…

The main topic of conversation was a TV remote control system called the ChannelScan, which you could use to jazz up an existing TV equipped only with an electromechanical channel selector knob. Although it may have been the height of sophistication in its day (I doubt it, but I'm prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt), in hindsight the ChannelScan really was a bit of a clunker. The hand-held controller was connected by a 25-foot wire to the actuator, which had to be physically attached to the VHF channel knob on the front of the TV. The actuator unit contained an AC-powered motor, which was used to turn the VHF channel knob.

It's not hard to imagine that having a 25-foot cable snaking its way across your family room was a recipe for “interesting times.” I can easily visualize my dad and I watching a soccer game on TV and my mom sauntering across the room carrying some tasty treats when… ker-thump… food flying everywhere, plus we just missed the winning goal!

Actually, the history of TV remote controls is quite interesting. In the early days, different companies tried all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas based on the technologies available at the time. These systems included ultrasound (dogs hated this one) and visible light (so turning on a house light could trigger a channel change by mistake). Eventually, manufacturers moved to infrared and, more recently, wireless controllers.

Now, although we might smirk condescendingly at some of the early efforts, I'm here to tell you that they could be a real blessing to some users. I remember when I was about eight years old and my granddad (on my mom's side) had a stroke that completely paralyzed him down one side. (As an aside, there have been such amazing advances in recent years with regard to rehabilitating stroke victims that — if we had known then what we know now — my granddad might have been afforded an almost complete recovery.)

Since granddad couldn’t look after himself, he came to live with us. We only had a small “two up, two down” house, so we turned our dining room into granddad's living/sleeping room. My mom and dad purchased a second-hand black-and-white television to go in granddad's room (it was actually bigger and better than the one we had in our family room, but I'm not bitter LOL).

The problem was that this was the early 1960s and TV remote controls were rare items; I don’t think anyone in my family had actually seen one in the flesh, as it were. Thus, when granddad wanted to switch to another channel, he had to ask one of us to do it for him. This may not seem like a terrible burden, especially when you recall that we had only two or three channel options in those days of yore, but granddad was a “channel flicker” for his time — he constantly worried that he was missing something interesting on “the other side” and he loved to switch back and forth between channels. Come on, admit it, you sometimes do the same thing, but it's a lot easier when you have a modern remote control in your hand.

My dad mulled over this problem for quite some time. I remember the day when he returned home from work carrying a 5-foot long wooden broom pole. Using his pocket knife, he whittled one end down to a 1/4″ diameter pointer, and then he presented the finished product to granddad.

This may not seem like much when you hear me waffling on about it here, but I remember how this changed my granddad's life. You cannot imagine just how empowering this was; no longer did he have to ask for our aid — he was the master of his own channel-surfing destiny — the baron of broadcast; the king of communications; the emperor of entertainment; but we digress…

More recently, we have the concept of the “Universal Remote Controller.” Don’t make me laugh! In our family room we currently have three large controllers — one for the cable box, one for the television itself (for some reason the cable controller can't handle the TV's volume), and one for the DVD player. On top of that, we have two smaller controllers — one for the Apple TV and one for the Amazon Fire TV Stick. And, now I come to think about it, we also have a bunch of Wii controllers scattered around.

There are another three controllers in our study, two in our bedroom, and I daren't even take a guess at the number of additional devices that are lurking around the house.

What's the answer to this madness? Well, I firmly believe that voice control is going to be the wave of the future, perhaps a more advanced version of the interface sported by the Amazon Echo (see also The Amazin' Amazon Echo… Echo… Echo…). And, if we look a little further out, I think this voice control will be augmented by embedded vision that supports capabilities like gesture control. Can you imagine being able to point at the TV and spread your fingers apart to zoom in on a particular play in a football match, for example; also to be able to pan around the screen, rewind, fast-forward, and zoom out again, all with a flick of a finger and a twist of the wrist?

As John Lennon might have said: “You may say that I'm a dreamer… but I'm not the only one…” What are your thoughts on all this? Will we one day be freed from the need to surround ourselves with a plethora of “Universal” remote controls, or are we destined to be obliged to move into larger houses just to have the room to store all of the little scamps we'll need to make it through the day?

7 thoughts on “The dark and dismal days before the invention of the TV remote control

  1. “MaxnnAt the risk of adding to your stack of controls in front of the TV- you do know Apple has an app that allows you to use your iPad and/or your (actually somebody else's, since you don't have one) iPhone as a control for Apple TV and other Apple dev

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  2. “When VCRs started becoming popular ~1987 the ones I had always had a wire remote control. Some TVs at the time had the ultrasonic remotes, ours had none. Keep in mind TV was only introduced in South Africa in 1975. Quite often we would trip over the 15' c

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  3. “Maxnn”(for some reason the cable controller can't handle the TV's volume)”nnI have similar problems with the controller on my cable box, not to mention another which always leaves the TV and the box out of phase- one is on t'other is off. nnIn my

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  4. “Back in the 70s some friends of ours had an ultrasonic remote.nnThe TV changed channels every time the dog scratched itself. If this happened too often, the dog got bathed.”

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  5. “I think I tried that app a couple of years ago when I first got my Apple TV — the app was cr.. (rubbish). Maybe it's improved since then… I might go back and try it again.”

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  6. “My uncle, also, had an ultrasonic TV. It was the “big thing” for the Thanksgiving gathering. Until, that is, someone gave the baby a set of car keys in lieu of a rattle.”

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