Zenith Space Command, one of the first wireless remotes ever to exist, is a monument to a time before we took remote control for granted. It also happens to contain one of the most influential and exciting buttons in history.
If you’ve ever heard someone refer to a TV remote control as a “clicker,” it’s because of Robert Adler’s 1956 creation. The elegant Star Trek-esque gadget pioneered a durable, clickable action to control gadgets and a simple form that has since been naively abandoned.
When Zenith first began experimenting with wireless remote controls, it used light beams that the television could receive to communicate a command, eventually debuting Flash-Matic in 1955. It took only a year on the market before this idea was abandoned due to its sensitivity to full-spectrum light from the sun and bulbs. So Zenith’s engineers tried an even simpler approach that didn’t require batteries at all, using sound instead of light.
The space command is a product of mechanical engineering rather than electrical. By pressing a button on the remote control, you set off a spring-loaded hammer that strikes a solid aluminum rod in the unit, which then rings out with an ultrasonic frequency. Each button has a rod of different length, and thus a different high-frequency tone, which triggers a circuit connected to a microphone in the television to complete the command.
Again, it required no batteries – much desired by Zenith as the company did not want customers to think a TV was broken when the battery died. This also did not require the remote to be pointed directly at a receiver, which was a major flaw of the Flash-Matic. In 1956, Adler addressed problems we still live with today: I’m constantly replacing AAA batteries in my home, and I regularly move things away from my Xbox receiver so my infrared remote can reach it.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales/The Verge
I found my Space Command, a 1970s model you see in our photos, in a bin of leftover remote controls from my dad’s TV repair business. It’s mostly been a retro-futuristic tchotchke on my shelf, but sometimes I pick it up and play. Pressing a button on this tuning fork gives you beautifully clicky (dare I say chalky?) feedback, almost like trying to light a flame on an outdoor grill.
The buttons are high and stiff, so there is little room for error. Even if you don’t hear the ultrasonic frequency they emit, you can hear (and feel) the clack of the hammer against the aluminum bars and a simultaneous clink of confirmation when your finger hits the body of the remote. The button press is slow and literally clumsy, but it gives you a sense of accomplishment, even if it’s just to turn up the volume on the TV.
Just click on this video and listen:
Why ultrasound? In Adler’s own words, from a 2004 interview with the Television Academy Foundation:
It was clear to all of us that we could not use the radio. We had a bunch of radio engineers here, that wouldn’t have been much of a problem, but the radio went through walls. And it would work on the neighbor’s set or if you lived in an apartment.
Nowadays, of course, you say, why don’t you encode the signal? We cannot encode the signal because we cannot use 100 vacuum tubes. It was a trap. And I came up with ultrasound because I knew that ultrasound in air wouldn’t go through walls, so it was like normal talking…
That part was logical. I didn’t want it to be heard so it had to be either subsonic or supersonic. Subsonic didn’t make sense from a technical standpoint, so there you are. It should be an ultrasound.
Zenith’s mechanical space command lived on for a quarter of a century as the standard way of controlling a television. Even today, some people still call their remotes “the clicker”. It had its flaws: People found that jingling keys or coins could be picked up by the TV’s microphones and accidentally change channels, and the high frequencies from the remote control could be seen by pets.
Eventually, as more and more features were added to the television experience from menus, cable, and VCRs, broadcasters began developing remote controls with infrared blasters and advanced circuit boards. We ended up with dozens of squishy buttons placed sporadically over sheets of plastic glued together – mostly an afterthought and often tossed in the junk drawer at home.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales/The Verge
Modern universal remotes can be messy and complicated to the point some people started tape over large parts of the device to avoid confusion. But in the age of Roku, streaming devices have largely relegated the TV remote to the new essentials: playback, home, volume, and voice control. We’re back to a minimalist aesthetic for the quintessential coffee table gadget that embodies some (but not all) of the values that early Space Command delivered.
Note to future TV manufacturers: Consider a blocky unit with four strong buttons that won’t fall between couch cushions.