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What Common Electronic Device Was Once Remote Controlled By Ultrasound?



 Old Zenith Ad Depicting First Wireless TV Remote
Zenith

Answer: Televisions

Get anyone who came from the early days of television to talk about their family's first television set and you're bound to hear stories about children sent scurrying across the living room to change the channel using the controls on the front of the set. In those days, there were now remotes to speak of, and if you wanted to watch another of the handful of stations available in your area, then you had to get up and change the channel on the set itself.

All that changed when the first, albeit unpopular, television remote came along. The first television remote was released in 1

950 and was unimaginable to a modern consumer, tethered directly to the television set by a cable that snaked across the living room to the viewer's chair. Despite the increase in convenience, very few people wanted a semi-permanent cable installation in their living room. Zenith, the same television company responsible for introducing the aforementioned wired remotes, spent the first half of the 1950s working on a wireless version. Radio-based remotes were proposed, but ultimately never used outside of the lab thanks to the poor quality of 1950s era radio receivers. It simply has practical or efficient use of radio frequencies for remote control at the time.

If not radio waves, then what? If you are infrared, you will be informed about the mechanics of modern remotes, but off base in guessing how the first wireless remote functions. Modern remote controls use infrared pulses for control televisions and peripheral equipment, but infrared did not start appearing in consumer products until the early 1980s. Bluetooth remotes as a standard feature would be another thirty years off from that, even.

The first wireless television remote control instead used ultrasonic frequencies to control the television set. The bulky remote housed a series of bars that were struck by the buttons with a loud click (thus the term "clicker" to refer to remote controls) and fired ultrasonic waves out of the front of the remote. The design of ultrasonic remotes was refined with the introduction of more compact electronics. Later models contained piezoelectric crystals, configured in a variety of electronic tuning-like apparatus, which issued specific frequencies for various functions (like changing the channel up or down, adjusting the volume, and turning the power on or off). The receiver housed a microphone that picked up on the frequencies and made the adjustments to the television set.

The design was not without shortcomings, however. Some people with very sensitive high-frequency hearing can hear the remote (much to their annoyance), dogs were reported to be less than fond of the devices, and natural sounds from the environment could cause the receiver to malfunction.

Ultrasonic remotes were eventually phased out in favor of infrared remotes which generated sound and were radically less susceptible to environmental interference. Although radio-frequency remotes were impractical in the 1950s, high-end remote manufacturers would return to the concept decades later with much success. Today, the majority of remote control functions in domestic electronics are handled by infrared, radio frequency, or a combination of the two.


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