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People Who Died

Something Clicked

Robert Adler

Okan Arabacioglu

By Lee Gardner | Posted 12/26/2007

If you're like most Americans, when you get home you flop down on the couch, turn on the television, and start searching around to see if there's anything good on. You perform those unthinking actions in that accustomed order in large part thanks to Robert Adler. Adler happens to have been the co-inventor for the earliest successful TV remote control, a device that has, for better or worse, affected the lives of almost everyone living in the developed world.

Adler's personal biography, as available to the casual researcher, is spartan and not atypical of many scientists of his generation. Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1913, Adler earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Vienna in 1937 before joining the exodus of affluent, educated European Jews to the United States. He went to work for Zenith in 1941 and stayed with the company for almost 60 years in some capacity, including director of research.

Like most American scientists at the time, Adler mostly worked to further "the war effort" during WWII, in his case improving aircraft radios. When the war ended, he and many of his colleagues turned to the then-emerging technology of television. It seems TV sets weren't around long before manufacturers went looking for ways to prevent viewers from having to get up from their seats to operate them. Zenith introduced the first TV remote in 1950; the company called the bulky box connected to the set by a wire "Lazy Bones." Even if the insulting name didn't limit sales, the wire did, and the company introduced the wireless "Flashmatic" in 1955; the new iteration worked with a light beam that triggered photovoltaic cells, but the cells reacted to other light sources as well, making the setup unpredictable.

Adler had already introduced several improvements to basic television design before tackling the problem of a reliable remote control. Along with Eugene Polley, the man behind the Flashmatic, Adler wrestled with the problem until he came up with a solution: ultrasound. On his "Space Command" remote, introduced in 1956, the buttons cued tiny hammers to strike aluminum rods inside the housing; the resulting tones triggered vacuum tubes inside the TV set that changed channels, adjusted the volume, etc. The tones were too high-frequency for humans to hear, but the mechanism did make a faint clicking sound (hence "clicker"). It weighed half a pound and cost $100 (the equivalent would buy a wall-sized LCD flat screen in 2007 dollars), but people bought it. Remotes would eventually adopt transistorized ultrasonic signals and infrared technology (most common in remotes today), but Adler and Polley's invention established the remote control as a viable, and desirable, feature.

Every bio of Adler mentions the Space Command as his claim to fame, but he enjoyed a long and distinguished career apart from that one soon-outmoded device. He published dozens of articles, won numerous awards and honors (including an Emmy), and kept innovating, including seminal work on acoustic wave technology, the field that underpins another everyday device: the touch screen. He held more than 180 patents: His last was awarded in 2006 and related to touch-screen technology; he applied for another two weeks before he died on Feb. 15, at age 93. Otherwise, the scanty accounts of his nonlaboratory life mention a devoted wife, a pilot's license, and an enthusiasm for the outdoors. He apparently watched little TV.

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