Robert Adler, a prolific inventor, received more than 180 U.S. patents during a lifetime of dreaming and tinkering. But only one of his creations revolutionized an industry, changed the face of modern life, and supplied stand-up comedians with a never-ending source of material.
Adler, who died Thursday at the age of 93, was the co-inventor of the remote control, the device that has bedeviled, edified and otherwise sustained a grateful nation of couch potatoes ever since its introduction. Along with inventor and fellow engineer Eugene Polley, Adler helped bring the first commercially successful wireless TV remote -- the Zenith Space Command -- to market in 1956.
My parents had one of these in probably the late 1960s. They looked something like this:
Ours was less colorful and looked more like a Star Trek phaser -- more "streamlined" if you could use that term. I don't remember what the other two buttons were for besides changing channels; my recollection is that they were On/Off buttons, but they could have been volume, too.
They worked through sound, or ultra-sound. The device had four little rods in it and pushing the buttons caused little hammers to strike the bars which the TV picked up and processed:
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.
We kids discovered this by accident. One day one of us was jangling a chain around and the TV started switching channels! Couldn't really "control" it, but by jangling the chain all voer the place it would switch channels in random directions. I think that was the first technological device I ever really understood. Somehow, it didn't seem so cool after that.
So anyway, thanks Dr. Adler.