Robert Adler

TV Wireless Remote
Consumer Devices

Robert Adler held 180 patents for electronic devices, whose applications run from the esoteric to the everyday. He was best known as the "Father of the TV Remote Control."

Adler was born in Vienna, Austria on December 4, 1913, and was educated there; his academic career culminated in his PhD in Physics at age 24 from the University of Vienna (1937). Soon thereafter, he emigrated to the U.S. and found work in the Research division of Zenith Electronics Corporation (then Zenith Radio Corporation).

During World War II, Adler specialized in military communications equipment, including high-frequency oscillators and electromechanical filters for aircraft radios. Always one to see the broader applications of a specific technology, Adler later relied on this work, when in the 1960s he explored the use of surface acoustic waves in frequency filters for color television sets. Today, acoustic wave technology is essential to both television screens and touch-sensitive computer displays.

After the war, Adler turned his attention specifically to television technology. One early invention of Adler's was the "gated-beam" vacuum tube, which eliminated a great deal of sound interference in television receivers at one stroke, thus reducing costs as well. Adler also led the team that invented a special synchronizing circuit that improved reception at the fringes of a television station's broadcast area. But Adler's greatest triumph was the wireless remote control.

Zenith's founder, Eugene F. McDonald Jr., had been convinced that what TV viewers wanted more than anything else was to be able to avoid commercials. Inspired by this theory, Zenith produced the first TV remote in 1950, dubbed "Lazy Bones." It performed on/off and channel-changing functions fairly well, but was cumbersome to use, and was attached to the TV by a cord that soon proved a safety hazard to Zenith's less nimble customers. In 1955, Zenith produced the "Flashmatic," a wireless remote that was basically a flashlight pointed at photo cells located at the corners of the TV cabinet. Unfortunately, the photo cells reacted to sunlight as well as the remote.

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Robert Adler's solution was for the remote to "communicate" with the TV by sound, not light - specifically, by ultrasound, that is, at frequencies higher than the human ear can hear. Adler's remote control unit itself was very simple: it did not even require batteries. The buttons struck one of four lightweight aluminum rods inside the unit, like a piano's keys strike its strings. The receiver in the TV interpreted these high-frequency tones as signaling channel-up, channel-down, sound on/off, or power on/off. The necessary 30% increase in cost was imposing to consumers at first, but there was no doubt about the popularity of the system.

In the 1960s, Adler modified his system to generate the ultrasonic signals electronically. Over the next twenty years, the ultrasound TV remote control was slowly becoming a standard adjunct to the television. By the time remote technology moved on to infrared light technology in the early 1980s, more than nine million TVs had been sold, by Zenith and others, with Adler's remote control system.

By 1963, Adler had risen to Vice President and Director of Research at Zenith; he was a technical advisor to the company until 1997.

Adler also won countless prestigious awards, including the IEEE's Edison Medal (1980).

Adler died on February 15, 2007.