Robert Adler, 93; Engineer, Co-Inventor of TV Remote Control

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007

Robert Adler, 93, co-inventor of the television remote control, which encouraged the proliferation of couch potatoes, shortened the attention span of viewers and prompted innumerable household disputes over who would control the television, died Feb. 15 of heart ailments in a nursing home in Boise, Idaho.

Mr. Adler received more than 180 patents during his six-decade career with Zenith Electronics Corp., but he is best known for his 1956 Space Command remote control, which used high-frequency sounds to allow consumers to flip from "Ozzie and Harriet" to "Queen for a Day."

Despite a tendency to change the channels at the sound of keys jingling, dog tags rattling or coins spilling, the cigarette-pack-size Space Command clicked -- both literally and with the public. Its small aluminum rods were struck like tuning forks to produce ultrasonic waves when one of the four buttons were depressed. More than 9 million ultrasonic remotes inspired by Dr. Adler's invention were sold between 1956 and 1982, before infrared technology took over.

The Viennese-born electronics engineer didn't watch much television himself -- as recently as three years ago, he didn't have cable -- and he was far prouder of his barometric amplifier, which was considered useful by radio astronomers and antimissile radar specialists. The increase in remotes for electronic entertainment, as well as the burgeoning number of buttons on each, dismayed him.

"Given their complexity, perhaps you will need to get a pilot's license," he once said.

In 1997, Mr. Adler and co-inventor Eugene Polley were awarded an Emmy for their inventions. Polley, the forgotten man in the instant histories that praise technological innovation, actually was the first to solve the problem posed by Zenith's top executive, who wanted to squelch the ear-splitting sound of commercials.

A wired device called Lazy Bones, designed in 1950 by Zenith, was offered. It was pricey and primitive, but ads proclaimed: "Prest-o! Change-o! Just Press a Button . . . to Change a Station!"

In 1955, Polley built the Flashmatic, a flashlight shaped like a sprinkler nozzle. The viewer pointed a beam of light at sensors in the corner of the TV set. Nearly 30,000 were sold. But it was too sensitive to sunsets, floor lamps and flashbulbs. The following year, Dr. Adler's audio-driven Space Commander debuted and was declared more reliable.

Dr. Adler also was considered a pioneer in surface acoustic wave technology, used in color television sets and touch screens found everywhere in airport kiosks, museums and cellphones. His most recent patent application for an advancement in touch-screen technology was published Feb. 1.

Dr. Adler joined Zenith's research division in 1941 after receiving a doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna. His work at Zenith's suburban Chicago location ranged from improving television sound to developing a synchronizing circuit that permitted better television reception in fringe areas, before the days of cable and satellite TV. He also envisioned, in a 1974 research paper, what was to become the digital video disc.

He retired as Zenith's vice president of research in 1979 and served as a technical consultant to the business until 1999, when it merged with LG Electronics Inc.

With honors from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Mr. Adler was inducted into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame in 2000. He also was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A world traveler, he was fluent in German, English and French. He was a downhill skier until age 89 and was still hiking in the past year.

Survivors include his wife, Ingrid Koch Adler of Boise.

He had three remotes in his house -- one fewer than the average American.

"People ask me all the time -- 'Don't you feel guilty for it?' And I say that's ridiculous," he said of his invention in an interview with the Associated Press several years ago. "It seems reasonable and rational to control the TV from where you normally sit and watch television."

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