A space where the remote control should be

They go back further than you might think, television remote controls. They’ve been around almost as long as we’ve had moving pictures in our homes. After all, no-one ever really enjoyed getting up and down from the sofa time and again of an evening to change the channels or adjust the volume on the enormous TV. In the UK, however, remotes didn’t really make an appearance until the 1980s.

Any child of the 1950s and 1960s will corroborate that mothers and fathers rarely roused themselves for the long walk across the living-room carpet if there was a spare child available. Child always sent on the mission instead.

Zenith Radio Corporation in the US developed the first remote control for a television in 1950.

The control — nicely named “Lazy Bones” — was connected to the television by that famous trip-hazard: a wire.

The first commercially successful wireless TV remote — the Zenith Space Command — arrived in the US market in 1956. It used ultrasound to issue its instructions.

In the UK, we largely ignored this white heat of progress. Zapping things was straight out of Star Trek. Actually, they largely ignored the technology in the US, too. In 1979, only around 17 per cent of American households with a TV had a remote to control it.

However, when the BBC invented the Ceefax teletext service in 1973, we suddenly needed a more complex type of television remote control than a small child. The teletext pages were identified by three-digit numbers. A remote control to select teletext pages needed buttons so you could choose your page by keying in any numeral from zero to nine. So now your remote control had to do a lot more than change the channel and adjust the volume. Remotes grew heady with the new power and, as well as the numerals, started sporting buttons that would control the switch from text to picture, adjust the brightness, vary the colour intensity, and, if they had had their way, make a small tea or coffee on demand.

BBC engineers began talks with television manufacturers, which led to early prototypes in the late 1970s. After that, remotes in UK households took off, using the infra-red ITT protocol.

The naturally sedentary never looked back. Now, we are used to seeing arrays of remotes in our homes, as we have one for the TV, one for the VCR, one for the DVD player… There will surely come a time when we finally figure out how to program those pesky complicated universal remote controls.

Until then, however, over this festive season, as you channel-hop from the Doctor Who Christmas Special to Dude, Where’s My Donkey? using your remote, consider how often you could have improved your health and well-being by standing up and walking instead. You could have expended an estimated extra 2 million calories over your lifetime if you hadn’t reached for the bacteria-laden (and therefore possibly potentially deadly in its own right) remote instead.

So get up from that sofa!

Or just ask a small child.

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