The Inventor Who Deserves a Sitting Ovation

Robert Adler at Zenith in 1996, with the offspring of his 1956 invention, the TV remote.
Robert Adler at Zenith in 1996, with the offspring of his 1956 invention, the TV remote. (By Al Podgorski -- Chicago Sun-times Via Associated Press)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007

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.

Is it even possible to imagine operating a TV set, or watching one, without a remote control? It isn't, not with television having metastasized from a few flickering channels to a 500-channel mutant (just try getting from Channel 47 to Channel 470 without the clicker). It isn't, now that modern televisions have been redesigned to reflect the triumph of the remote, shorn of the knobs and buttons that once sprouted like warts from the face of a TV set. You know you are of a certain age if the phrase "Don't touch that dial!" means anything at all to you.

Adler and Polley were, at bottom, the fathers not just of channel surfing but of eternal sedentary empowerment. As the columnist Ellen Goodman once noted, the remote control had to have been invented by men because there is nothing more male than the concepts "remote" and "control."

We could blame Adler (but we won't) for the death of TV show themes and intros, and for making TV programs so much faster in general. Because the remote handed viewers the power to switch away from whatever displeased them in an instant, the networks had to respond. So they eliminated commercials between some shows, resulting in the so-called cold opening, and introduced multi-plot dramas to make viewers fearful that they'd miss a key twist.

Contemporary remotes seem to breed like fruit flies; they end up in heaps on the coffee table. They are intimidating things -- all those buttons: What are they for?

The original remotes were simple devices, albeit the size of a piece of carry-on luggage. Before Adler and Polley made the remote wireless, Zenith produced a device called "Lazy Bones, " which performed on/off and channel-changing functions via a cord attached to the set (this soon proved to be a safety hazard). A forerunner of the Space Command was the Flashmatic, which was indeed wireless but ran on photoelectric cells embedded in the TV cabinet. The Flashmatic had a fatal flaw, however: The cells reacted to sunlight as well as the remote.

Adler and Polley's refinement was ingeniously simple. When a viewer pressed the buttons on the Space Command, tiny hammers struck lightweight aluminum rods to produce high-frequency sounds. The sounds triggered vacuum-tube receivers inside the TV set that moved the power, channel-change and volume controls up or down. The system raised the cost of TV sets by about a third, but it was nevertheless a popular feature. Besides its simplicity, the Space Command retained one key advantage over its descendants: It required no batteries.

The way in which the remote invited viewers to sink into TV's never-ending narcotic haze was easy to satirize. In "Being There," the 1979 film of Jerzy Kosinski's novel, the dimwitted gardener Chance attempts to fend off a mugger by aiming a remote at him and clicking (this shtick was expanded to full feature length in the recent Adam Sandler film "Click"). If only reality were so malleable!

In some ways, Adler and Polley's triumph was the gateway to wirelessness in general. Didn't TV remotes teach us to expect similar ease and practicality in almost everything? The remote is the direct ancestor of automatic garage-door openers, wireless phones, remote keyless entry in cars, even laptops.

As triumphant and pervasive as his vision was, Adler's mission was incomplete. If only he had invented a way to find the darn thing.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company