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A television remote control
A pile of various remote controls

A remote control is a component of an electronics device, most commonly a television set, used for operating the device wirelessly from a short line-of-sight distance.

The term remote control can be contracted to remote or controller. It is known by many other names as well, such as clicker, didge, flipper the tuner, or the changer. Commonly, remote controls are Consumer IR devices used to issue commands from a distance to televisions or other consumer electronics such as stereo systems, DVD players and dimmers. Remote controls for these devices are usually small wireless handheld objects with an array of buttons for adjusting various settings such as television channel, track number, and volume. In fact, for the majority of modern devices with this kind of control, the remote contains all the function controls while the controlled device itself only has a handful of essential primary controls. Most of these remotes communicate to their respective devices via infrared (IR) signals and a few via radio signals. Television IR signals can be mimicked by a universal remote, which is able to emulate the functionality of most major brand television remote controls. They are usually powered by small AAA or AA size batteries.


One of the earliest examples of remote control was developed in 1898 by Nikola Tesla, and described in his patent, , named Method of an Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vehicle or Vehicles.

In 1903, Leonardo Torres Quevedo presented the Telekino at the Paris Academy of Science, accompanied by a brief, and making an experimental demonstration. In the same time he obtained a patent in France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United Statesmarker. The Telekino consisted of a robot that executed commands transmitted by electromagnetic waves. It constituted the world's first apparatus for radio control and was a pioneer in the field of remote control. In 1906, in the presence of the king and before a great crowd, Torres successfully demonstrated the invention in the port of Bilbaomarker, guiding a boat from the shore. Later, he would try to apply the Telekino to projectiles and torpedoes, but had to abandon the project for lack of financing.

The first remote-controlled model aeroplane flew in 1932, and the use of remote control technology for military purposes was worked intensively during the Second World War, one result of this being the German Wasserfall missile.

By the late 1930s, several radio manufacturers offered remote controls for some of their higher-end models. Most of these were connected to the set being controlled by wires, but the Philco Mystery Control (1939) was a battery-operated low-frequency radio transmitter, thus making it the first wireless remote control for a consumer electronics device.

Television Remote Controls

The first remote intended to control a television was developed by Zenith Radio Corporation in 1950. The remote — officially called "Lazy Bones" was connected to the television set by a wire. To improve the cumbersome setup, a wireless remote control called "Flashmatic" was developed in 1955 which worked by shining a beam of light onto a photoelectric cell. Unfortunately, the cells did not distinguish between light from the remote and light from other sources and the Flashmatic also required that the remote control be pointed very accurately at the receiver.

The Zenith Space Commander 600 remote control
In 1956 Robert Adler developed "Zenith Space Command", a wireless remote. It was mechanical and used ultrasound to change the channel and volume. When the user pushed a button on the remote control it clicked and struck a bar, hence the term "clicker". Each bar emitted a different frequency and circuits in the television detected this noise. The invention of the transistor made possible cheaper electronic remotes that contained a piezoelectric crystal that was fed by an oscillating electric current at a frequency near or above the upper threshold of human hearing, though still audible to dogs. The receiver contained a microphone attached to a circuit that was tuned to the same frequency. Some problems with this method were that the receiver could be triggered accidentally by naturally occurring noises, and some people, especially young women, could hear the piercing ultrasonic signals. There was even a noted incident in which a toy xylophone changed the channels on these types of TVs since some of the overtones from the xylophone matched the remote's ultrasonic frequency.

The impetus for a more complex type of television remote control came in the late 1970s with the development of the Ceefax teletext service by the BBC. Most commercial remote controls at that time had a limited number of functions, sometimes as few as three: next channel, previous channel, and volume/off. This type of control did not meet the needs of teletext sets where pages were identified with three-digit numbers. A remote control to select teletext pages would need buttons for each number from zero to nine, as well as other control functions, such as switching from text to picture, and the normal television controls of volume, station, brightness, colour intensity and so on. Early teletext sets used wired remote controls to select pages but the continuous use of the remote control required for teletext quickly indicated the need for a wireless device. So BBC engineers began talks with one or two television manufacturers which led to early prototypes in around 1977-78 that could control a much larger number of functions. ITT was one of the companies and later gave its name to the ITT protocol of infrared communication.

Effect of the Early Television Remote Control

The remote gave power to viewers. It allowed audiences, for the first time, to interact with their TV. They no longer watched programmes just because they did not want to get up to change the channel.

The invention of the remote control has led to several different changes in television programming. One thing that the remote control led to was the creation of split screen credits. According to James Gleick, an NBC research team discovered that when the credits started rolling after a program, 25% of its viewers would change the channel before it was over. Because of this, the NBC 2000 unit invented the “squeeze and tease” which squeezed the credits onto one third of the screen while the final minutes of the broadcast aired simultaneously.

The remote control also led to an adjustment in commercial airings. Networks began to feel that they could not afford to have commercials between programs because it would detract viewers from staying tuned in on their channel. Programmers decided to place commercials in the middle of programs in order to make the transition to the next show directly.

With networks keeping in mind that people were equipped with remotes, thirty-second advertisement spots were cut down into segments of eight seconds or less. MTV was made up of this high-speed and broken cutting style, which aired music videos that were around three-minutes and each shot no more than two or three seconds. But MTV felt that even these three-minute segments were too long, so they created an animated series called Beavis and Butthead, to keep their viewer’s attention. In the show, they would show segments of music videos and then switch back to the characters and offer dialogue and action while the music video played in the background. Beavis and Butthead was purposefully stagnant, with slow dialogue and depending on reaction shots, but animation takes the most management and the pacing is everything. The last fraction of a second of sound track overlaid with the first fraction of a second of the visual track for the next scene.

Other Remote Controls

In the 1980s Steve Wozniak of Applemarker, started a company named CL 9. The purpose of this company was to create a remote control which could operate multiple electronic devices. The CORE unit as it was named (Controller Of Remote Equipment) was introduced in the fall of 1987. The advantage to this remote controller was that it could “learn” remote signals from other different devices. It also had the ability to perform specific or multiple functions at various times with its built in clock. It was also the first remote control which could be linked to a computer and loaded with updated software code as needed. The CORE unit never made a huge impact on the market. It was much too cumbersome for the average user to program, but it received rave reviews from those who could figure out how to program it. These obstacles eventually led to the demise of CL 9, but one of its employees continued the business under the name Celadon. This was one of the first computer controlled learning remote controls on the market.

The Joystick

The Joystick was a type of remote control that allowed people to interact further with their television. Pong- the game in which people first used joysticks- was a basic game that was based on ping-pong. This new technology gave the average TV owner the ability to manipulate his or her own pixel on the TV screen for the first time.

The Proliferation of Remote Controls

By the early 2000s, the number of consumer electronic devices in most homes greatly increased, along with the number of remotes to control those devices. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, an average American home has four remotes. To operate a home theater as many as five or six remotes may be required, including one for cable or satellite receiver, VCR or digital video recorder, DVD player, TV and audio amplifier. Several of these remotes may need to be used sequentially, but, as there are no accepted interface guidelines, the process is increasingly cumbersome. Many specialists, including Jakob Nielsen, a renowned usability specialist and Robert Adler, the inventor of the modern remote, note how confusing, unwieldy and frustrating the multiplying remotes have become.Because of this proliferation of remote controls, universal remote controls that control multiple devices are becoming increasingly popular.


The opto components, circuits and mathematics

The emission spectrum of a typical sound system remote control is in the near infrared.

The infrared diode modulates at a speed corresponding to a particular function.
When seen through a digital camera, the diode appears to illuminate purple light.

Most control remotes for electronic appliances use a near infrared diode to emit a beam of light that reaches the device. A 940 nm wavelength LED is typical. This infrared light is invisible to the human eye, but picked up by sensors on the receiving device. Video cameras see the diode as if it produces visible purple light.

With a single channel (single-function, one-button) remote control the presence of a carrier signal can be used to trigger a function. For multi-channel (normal multi-function) remote controls more sophisticated procedures are necessary: one consists of modulating the carrier with signals of different frequency. After the demodulation of the received signal, the appropriate frequency filters are applied to separate the respective signals. Nowadays digital procedures are more commonly used. One can often hear the signals being modulated on the infrared carrier by operating a remote control in very close proximity to an AM radio not tuned to a station.

Consumer electronics infrared protocols

Different manufacturers of infrared remote controls use different protocols to transmit the infrared commands. The RC-5 protocol that has its origins within Philips, uses, for instance, a total of 14 bits for each button press. The bit pattern is modulated onto a carrier frequency that, again, can be different for different manufacturers and standards, in the case of RC-5, a 36 kHz carrier is being used. Other consumer infrared protocols are, for instance, the different SIRCS versions used by Sony, the RC-6 from Philips, or the NEC TC101 protocol.

Infrared, line of sight and operating angle

Since infrared (IR) remote controls use light, they require line of sight to operate the destination device. The signal can, however, be reflected by mirrors, just like any other light source.

If operation is required where no line of sight is possible, for instance when controlling equipment in another room or installed in a cabinet, many brands of IR extenders are available for this on the market. Most of these have an IR receiver, picking up the IR signal and relaying it via radio waves to the remote part, which has an IR transmitter mimicking the original IR control.

Infrared receivers also tend to have a more or less limited operating angle, which mainly depends on the optical characteristics of the phototransistor. However, it’s easy to increase the operating angle using a matte transparent object in front of the receiver. A description can be found here.



Remote control is used for controlling substations, pump storage power stations and HVDC-plants. For these systems often PLC-systems working in the longwave range are used.


Only in the military field of use of remote controls can you find the jammers and the countermeasures against the jammers.

Jammers are used to disable or sabotage the enemy's use of remote controls. IED jamming systems, Radio jamming, Electronic warfare

The distances for military remote controls also tend to be much longer, up to intercontinental distance satellite linked remote controls used by the U.S. for their unmanned airplanes (drones) in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Remote controls are used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan to attack coalition and government troops with roadside IEDs (Improvised explosive device, Explosively formed penetrator).

The arms race and the fact that the enemy is many times closer to the receiver has made it more complicated and too expensive to build radio remote controls for roadside bombs that are immune to jammers. The simplest types of radio remote controls have been almost entirely disabled by the advanced jammers, but are still in use against unprotected Iraqi and Afghan national troops and civilian targets. One of the simplest solutions against the radio jammers is to fool the jammer itself to ignite the bomb.

Optical types of remote controls that uses light instead of radio are still immune to the jammers. The resistance in Iraq is reported in the media to use modified TV remote controls to detonate the bombs.

Military history

In World War I, the Imperial German Navy employed FL-boats (Fernlenkboote) against coastal shipping. These were driven by internal combustion engines, and controlled remotely from a shore station through several miles of wire wound on a spool on the boat. An aircraft was used to signal directions to the shore station. EMBs carried a high explosive charge in the bow and traveled at speeds of thirty knots.

The Soviet Red Army used remotely controlled teletanks during 1930s in the Winter War against Finlandmarker and the early stages of World War II. A teletank is controlled by radio from a control tank at a distance of 500–1,500 meters, the two constituting a telemechanical group. The Red Army fielded at least two teletank battalions at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War. There were also remotely controlled cutters and experimental remotely controlled planes in the Red Army.


Remote control technology is also used in space travel, for instance the Russian Lunokhod vehicles were remote-controlled from the ground. Direct remote control of space vehicles at greater distances from the earth is not practical due to increasing signal delay times.

Video games

Video game consoles had not used wireless controllers until recently, mainly because of the difficulty involved in playing the game while keeping the infrared transmitter pointed at the console. Early wireless controllers were cumbersome and when powered on alkaline batteries, lasted only a few hours before they needed replacement. Some wireless controllers were produced by third parties, in most cases using a radio link instead of infrared. Even these were very inconsistent, and in some cases, had transmission delays, making them virtually useless. The first official wireless controller made by a first party manufacturer was the WaveBird for Nintendo Gamecube. The Wavebird changed the face of wireless technology in video game consoles. In the current generation of gaming consoles, wireless controllers have become the standard.

PC control

Existing infrared remote controls can be used to control PC applications. Any application that supports shortcut keys can be controlled via IR remote controls from other home devices (TV, VCR, AC, ...). This is widely used with multimedia applications for PC based Home Theatre systems. For this to work, you need a device that decodes IR remote control data signals and a PC application that communicates to this device connected to PC. Connection can be made via serial port, USB port or motherboard IrDA connector. Such devices are commercially available or it can be home made using low cost microcontrollers.


Remote control toys, such as racing cars, boats and even aircraft are a favorite pastime of many people.


Remote controlled plane piloting is a common hobbiest activity. These planes have a similar fuselage to real planes and fly by the same principles. If the wing of the remote controlled plane is in an airfoil form and creates high and low pressure and lift, the plane will fly. This can be facilitated by a small electric motor that creates thrust.

Different types of channels control the plane:

Two Channel is mostly for beginners. The plane is controlled through a rudder and elevators.Three Channel is for beginners and experienced pilots. Control over the motor speed is available allowing pitch adjustment, higher speeds for faster climbing, lower speed for descents.Four Channel radio control allows for all of above and adds ailerons, which allow smoother turns, rudders which make the turns slower and slows airspeed.Five-Eight Channel radio adds gear up and down and other less-commonly used features.

Rudder, ailerons, elevators are controlled by servos connected to radio receivers. The "pilot" on the ground controls the transmitter.

Standby power

To be turned on by a wireless remote, the controlled appliance must always be partly on, consuming standby power.


Remote controls are prone to failure due to loss of conductivity between the keypad and circuit board. It is relatively simple to repair this using conductive paint containing a metal like silver or nickel.

See also

Products and standards


  1. Farhi, Paul. "The Inventor Who Deserves a Sitting Ovation." Washington Post. February 17, 2007.
  2., The History of the Television Remote Control
  3. Gleick, James: "Prest-O! Change-O!", page 147. Living in the Information Age, 2005.
  4. Gleick, James: "Prest-O! Change-O!", page 148. Living in the Information Age, 2005.
  5. Gleick, James: "Prest-O! Change-O!", page 149. Living in the Information Age, 2005.
  6., Museum of Broadcast Communications: Beavis and Butthead.
  7. Gleick, James: "Prest-O! Change-O!", page 150. Living in the Information Age, 2005.
  8. Rushkoff, Douglas: "Renaissance Now! Media Ecology and the New Global Narrative", page 25. Living in the Information Age, 2005.
  9. The Progressive, Mahdi Army Bides its Time, David Enders October 2008
  10. Lightoller, CH: "Titanic and other ships" I. Nicholson and Watson, 1935

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