Thursday, October 30, 2008

Robert Adler

Have you ever noticed someone willing to spend a couple of minutes searching for the remote when it only takes 5-10 seconds to walk up to the TV and change the channel? Has that been you at some point? Then you're one among many who will appreciate the hero I'm honoring today, Robert Adler. Among his many accomplishments in a life devoted to communications technology, Adler developed the first commercially viable remote control for televisions.

Adler (1913-2007) was a Jewish immigrant from Austria who fled Europe during WWII. He was working for Zenith in the early 1950's when the company's first attempt at a remote control, known as "Lazy Bones," was introduced. Unfortunately this device was attached to the TV by a cord, and you don't have to be an insurance underwriter to see the problem with that. One of Adler's colleagues then developed a wireless remote that shined light onto photovoltaic cells in the TV set. This remote was also problematic because stray light could be interpreted by the TV as a signal from the remote. The remote also had to be carefully pointed at the correct cell for the command to be properly interpreted.

Adler's breakthrough in 1956 was to have the remote send ultrasound signals to the TV. His invention, marketed as the "Zenith Space Commander," was a mechanical device that "clicked" at different frequencies. A small, hammer-like device struck one of a set of two (and later, four) aluminum bars, each with its own resonance. The high frequency sounds were captured by a receiver in the TV for the purpose of changing channels and adjusting volume. Ultrasound technology for remote controls became the standard in the marketplace for two decades until infrared devices were developed.

I'm one who falls asleep on the couch with the TV on, even with a remote by my side. I can hardly imagine the hassle of groggily standing up just to turn it off. Television accessories may not be equivalent to miracle drugs or yield-enhancing biotechnology, but Robert Adler's invention of the remote, leading to truly effortless television-watching, makes him a Hero of Capitalism in my book.

IEEE Profile
Tribute on Inventor Spot
USA Today Obit
IHT Obit
Wikipedia Entry: Remote Control
Wikipedia Entry: Robert Adler
Pictorial History of the Zenith Space Commander

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