History of the Remote Controller

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Remote Controls

A plotted history

"There is something that distinguishes Bang & Olufsen from everybody else. We are just as interested in what our products are used for as we are in their technological capabilities".

To us, coming up with a technically satisfying design is not enough. It also needs to be satisfying to use. It should operate intuitively. Knobs, buttons and dials need to be positioned logically and consistently so they can be understood and operated by children and adults alike. This might make people think the technology is less advanced. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, well-thought-out operation makes heavy demands on ingenuity, often requiring unconventional, sometimes radical solutions.

The objection is frequently heard that people quickly become accustomed to operating technical equipment even if it is complicated and illogical. We do not believe that this is necessarily so. In fact, people often find complicated things annoying – and give up trying to make sense of each of the functions they have paid for. There is simply no excuse for not thinking through the functions and their operation. Even when we’re talking about the most advanced high-fidelity equipment, the technology is there for the people – and not the other way around."

Remote-Control: Mechanics and cables

The first machines to be operated by any type of remote control were used mainly for military purposes. Radio-controlled motorboats, developed by the German navy, were used to ram enemy ships during the First World War. During the Second World War radio controlled bombs and other remote control weapons were used.

The German R C Goertz developed a mechanical manipulator in 1948 to aid in radioactive lab work. Goertz gave the machine mechanically and geometrically similar "master" and "slave" parts. The master was the part of the machine the Goertz controlled, and used to send the slave commands. The slave followed the master's movements exactly.

After WWII had ended, United States scientists experimented to find non-military uses for the remote control. In the late 1940s automatic garage door openers were marketed; and in the 1950s the first TV remote controls were used.

By 1952 the US Zenith Radio Corporation (now known as Zenith Electronics Corporation) marketed the World's first-ever remote control for television. Named 'Lazy Bones' the remote was used primarily to save their customers from annoying commercials. The remote control worked by cable: the TV on one end and a little box with buttons on the other end. A motor in the TV set operated the tuner through the remote control. By pushing buttons on the remote control, viewers rotated the tuner clockwise or counter clockwise, depending on whether they wanted to change the channel to a higher or lower number. The remote control also included buttons that turned the TV on and off.

Although successful, customers complained that people tripped over the thick, unsightly cable that joined the two components together. Zenith's late founder-president Commander Eugene F. McDonald Jr. yearned for a wireless remote control that would mute the sound of commercials.

Flashmatic: all done without wires!

Following on from 'Lazy Bones' Zenith's next product was the 'Flashmatic' which represented the industry's first wireless TV remote control. Introduced in 1955, Flashmatic operated by means of four photo cells, one in each corner of the TV screen. The viewer used a highly directional flashlight to activate the four control functions, which turned the picture and sound on and off and changed channels by turning the tuner dial clockwise and counter-clockwise.

While it pioneered the concept of wireless TV remote control, the Flashmatic was rather limited in its use. It was a simple device that had no protection circuits, and, if the TV set was placed in an area where the sun shone directly upon it, the tuner occasionally started to rotate with a mind of its own!

While representing good idea, Flashmatic had inherent problems and so the challenge of a more sophisticated remote control for television sets was spurred. First thoughts pointed towards using radio waves. However, because radio waves can travel through walls, a TV set in an adjacent room or building could theoretically be controlled as well.

Using distinctive sound signals by way of controlling televisions was discussed, but Zenith engineers believed customers would not appreciate unwanted noise coming from their products. The problem of finding an individual sound that wouldn't accidentally be duplicated by either household noises or by the sound coming from TV programming was also encountered.

Regardless of whichever system was adopted Zenith was against using batteries within the remote control. In the 1950s batteries were used primarily in hand-held torches. If a remote control's batteries ever went dead it was agreed that the customer might think something was wrong with the TV and not the hand-held control. Also, if the remote control didn't emit light or show any other visible sign of functioning, people would think it was broken once the batteries had been exhausted.


By 1956 Zenith's 'Space Command' (pictured above) went into production and became the World's first practical wireless remote control device. Using ultrasonics, these very high-frequency sounds went way beyond the range of human hearing.

The transmitter used no batteries; it was built around aluminium 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 around 6cm in length: 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 aluminium rod.

25 years of Ultrasonic Remotes

The original Space Command remote control was expensive because an elaborate receiver in the TV set was needed to pick up and process the signals. The system used six vacuum tubes.

However, by the early 1960s solid-state circuitry (transistors) began to replace vacuum tubes. Hand-held, battery-powered control units could now be designed to generate the inaudible sound electronically. In this modified form the ultrasonic remote control lasted right through the early 1980s, a quarter century from its inception. During its 25-year reign more than 9 million ultrasonic remote control-equipped sets were sold, despite customers having to pay a 30% premium!

Infra-red Remote Controls

By the early 1980s, the industry had moved to infrared, or IR, remote technology. The IR remote works by using a low frequency light beam; so low that the human eye cannot see it, but which can be detected by a receiver in the TV. In 1983, Bang & Olufsen started a trend in remote control and television integration. With Beovision 8800 the remote control functioned with infrared rather than ultrasound and essentially had the same functions as we use today including Teletext which was introduced in 1983. Cast in zinc, the Video Terminal was pleasant to handle as zinc conducts heat and the user does not get sweaty hands after long periods of handling.

The development of the Beovision 8800 system was based on the premise that technology should exist for the sake of people and not the other way around. This philosophy has been pervasive since right from the start at Bang & Olufsen, and still is today.

Handing it intuitively to Bang & Olufsen: a history of remote controls

Bang & Olufsen's first remote control came on the market in 1974. That year, Bang & Olufsen launched two products, each with a remote control of the same design. It was the size of a small cigar case and had a steel top plate. These two remote controls, which were not integrated, were the Beovision 6000 Commander and the Beomaster 6000 Commander. The TV remote control allowed the user to select programmes and picture quality from the comfort of an armchair. The remote control for the stereo enabled the user to control a four-channel sound system. Before too long remote controls became smaller, in the form of Beovision 6002's Beovision Control Module. The buttons on its surface were designed so that you could use the remote control without looking at it. Those for turning down a setting were shaped to curve downwards, while the buttons for turning up a setting curved upwards.

The following Video Terminal was cast in zinc so that heat was conducted away from the palm of the hand. This remote control, which used an infrared beam, was launched in 1980. It was quite narrow, with a keypad that both resembled and functioned the same way as the buttons on a telephone. This was another way of helping the user to operate the remote control without looking at it. This version introduced additional buttons for operating Teletext TV.

The following year, Bang & Olufsen added functions for operating video recorders and a new version of the Beovision Control Module. System integration had advanced to the point of sharing a remote control between the Beovision 8800 and Beocord 8800 Video.

The next generation of remote controls arrived when it became necessary to transfer more operating information that, for purely technical reasons, could not be incorporated into a single remote control. Now sound could be transferred between the television and the stereo system. This became possible with the combination of a video terminal and an audio terminal into an AV Terminal - the forerunner of Beolink 1000 - in 1985.

In 1987, all audio, video and audio/video remote controls were integrated into one unit with the Beolink 1000. Since then, Bang & Olufsen has pursued a strategy of only having one remote control for all products - most recently with Beo4, which is capable of operating all products. Beo1 is a minor exception to the strategy. It only operated Beocenter 1 and Beovision 1 and was intended for a new customer segment, which it did not completely succeed in capturing. For this reason, it was replaced by the Beo4 from autumn 2002.

In general, Bang & Olufsen's development of remote controls can be summed up in a simple concept: Intuitive use. It is important to be able to adjust sound and picture from wherever you may be in the home. Accordingly, Bang & Olufsen has chosen simple functions - and that, of course, also has implications for the design of the remote control. It's easy enough to pack a lot of buttons and functions into a remote control, but Bang & Olufsen has chosen a simple operational philosophy for the customer. Beo4 has relatively few buttons, but it can retrieve a lot of information if required. That is what you call quality. Since the development of the first remote control cast in zinc, the company's remote controls have had a certain intrinsic weight. This helps to give a sense of quality. Last but not least, the remote control is renowned for having a long range. You don't have to get into a special position to communicate with the system. Once you have the remote control in your hand, you are 'in total command'.

(Taken from Beolink Magazine: 'The First 50 Years of Television' © Bang & Olufsen a/s 2002)

Created: 11th January 2007
Modified: 22nd March 2007

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