The Real Reason the TV Remote Was Invented

The TV remote as we know it came about for one simple reason: one man’s desire to mute the ads he felt were ruining his viewing. In the 1950s, Zenith Electronics president Eugene F. McDonald gave the company’s engineers a challenge — create a device that would allow him to mute the commercials or skip to another channel where, hopefully, something other than commercials were playing. McDonald’s wish spawned a revolution, changing the way we watch television, making us less of a passive observer and more of a ruthless overseer. If we don’t like what we see, a new channel is just the flick of a switch away. Zenith’s game-changing device was called the Flashmatic, designed by engineer Eugene Polley and released in 1955. The Flashmatic was completely free of the TV set. It used a directional light source with a sensor in each corner of the TV screen, which allowed the viewer to change the channel and turn the set on or off, all by flashing the button at the screen. What might have looked like a child’s toy came with a very adult price tag. The Flashmatic added $100 to the price of a $400 television set, and that was at a time when you could buy a car for $600. Unfortunately, it still didn't mute the sound. So, Zenith went back to the drawing board and came up with a new remote called the Space Command. This remote had it all — channel changer, volume control, mute button, and on/off switch. Dubbed the “clicker,” the Space Command was the go-to remote control well into the 1970s.