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Dec 29 2005

Hand Me the "Clicker"

329remote.pngPC World recently listed their 50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years. The list is a little too heavy on cell phones (five), too few on calculators (one) and omits some ground-breaking gadgets like the Mattel Electronics handheld LED games of the 70s or any mention of a GPS device. One gadget that brought back memories and made me think of a trivia question was the Zenith Space Command which is ranked ridiculously low at 21st since its progeny is probably more used by more people than anything else on the list. And, the question is:

Do you know why old people sometimes call the TV remote the "clicker"? Because, the first untethered remote literally clicked:

Zenith Space Command (1956)

Zenith's Dr. Robert Adler suggested using "ultrasonics," that is, high-frequency sound, beyond the range of human hearing. He was assigned to lead a team of engineers to work on the first use of ultrasonics technology in the home as a new approach for a remote control.

The transmitter used no batteries; it was built around aluminum rods that were light in weight and, when struck at one end, emitted distinctive high-frequency sounds. The first such remote control used four rods, each approximately 2-1/2 inches long: one for channel up, one for channel down, one for sound on and off, and one for on and off.

They were very carefully cut to lengths that would generate four slightly different frequencies. They were excited by a trigger mechanism - similar to the trigger of a gun - that stretched a spring and then released it so that a small hammer would strike the end of the aluminum rod.

The device was developed quickly, with the design phase beginning in 1955. Called "Zenith Space Command," the remote went into production in the fall of 1956, becoming the first practical wireless remote control device.

While you couldn't hear the high frequency sound that was being emitted, you could very much hear the striking of the aluminum rod which is why remotes used to sometimes be referred to as the clicker. Interestingly, if you threw your keys down on a table near a TV controlled by one of these remotes it would sometimes cause the TV to change channels due to just the right sound being created.

Posted by Don |


  1. #1
    Evan Breyn said on December 6, 2007 | Reply

    Your page brings back a memory of my parents first TV with a remote control. It was a old Zenith Space Command black & white TV with one of the actual CLICKER type remotes. Not anything with a battery but with a sonic click plate. The device had two buttons. One to change the channel and the other to change volume. I think that if you hit both buttons at the same time, it would turn it on and off (I think). He purchased this TV in the early 60's.

    Well, dad was always up on the technology and that old clicker type BW TV got replaced and moved to the workshop in our house. This happened sometime in the 70's. With what it must have cost, he was not going to get rid of it, so it was a background TV when he was building stuff in the shop.

    Fast forward to the early 80's and the old Space Command was still in use. I just got a Sears Craftsman socket set. I'm taking apart a lawnmower or some other type of engine and I've got the socket set out and am clicking away with the driver. Imagine the shock I got when the TV started changing chanels AND the stupid thing was not even turned on... The old Zenith was not like a modern TV changes chanels, but with the motor in the TV all of a sudden coming to life going from channel to channel in time with the socket wrench. Thought the TV was haunted... Learned my first lession on sonic devices that day. Since it would not pick up much of a picture anyway, I would unplug it so that it would not scare the bejesus out of me. That would tick dad off as he would listen to the static with bits of program while he worked. Cable was still a few years away, so you got what the antenna could pick up and lived with it.

    A few months ago my son asked me why Grandma calls the remote "The Clicker". I chuckled and explained to him the story of the Zenith Space Command and the first true remote. I don't think he understood what I was talking about (yet).

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The remote past from The Gleeson Bloglomerate

Don Danz pays tribute to the Zenith Space Command. This primitive remote control from 1956 used no batteries or laser beams. Instead, it housed a little xylophone. The four buttons struck four tiny aluminum rods, each producing a distinctive note whic... Read More