Eugene Polley, the inventor of the first wireless television remote control, once said that “the flush toilet may have been the most civilized invention ever devised, but the remote control is the next most important.”
Which makes sense. The flush toilet fundamentally altered domestic space; it not only brought elimination indoors but also created a network of pipes within the house, an architectural extension of the human digestive system. These pipes connected our most private functions to vast public networks of waste disposal. The flush toilet changed the way we poop—and also the way we live with and understand our houses and families. The flush toilet is so ingrained in our notions of what it means to be modern that we can hardly imagine our lives without it.
But the remote control?
Yes, in fact—this seemingly innocuous media accessory has also changed the way we inhabit our houses and experience our families. The effects of remote controls have cascaded through the home, affecting how we arrange our domestic spaces, whom we share them with, and what we do there.
I live in a small two-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C. All of the chairs in my living room are located on one side of the room, across from the HDTV. This arrangement suits the size and design of our television monitor, but then, big screen TVs were made possible by the remote control. Without a remote, no one would want to sit across the room from their television set. Our HDTV-oriented living room makes group gatherings difficult, but that hardly matters since media consumption has become its primary function. The living room has four remote controls—the national average—that completely commandeer the coffee table. If they’re not on the table, they tend to go missing, and without its remotes, the room becomes dysfunctional. My living room is proof that remotes rewire the home physically and socially, which may be why Polley was not the first person to liken remote controls to indoor plumbing.
Shortly after U.S. radio manufacturers introduced remote controls in 1928, Popular Science published an article describing additional ways that “Radio Aims at Remote Control.” In it, Alfred P. Lane imagines wired remote controls running through a house like pipes and helping to modernize family life.
Lane’s article attempts to persuade consumers that remote controls can unify the home instead of dividing it, as the mass media were then doing. Although radio broadcasting made domestic recreation more attractive for many people, it disrupted family routines and family space; remote controls, though they promised luxury, only made the problem worse. In Lane’s day, remote controls were small mechanical devices connected to home radios by short, flexible cables: they enabled users to change the volume and turn their console on or off from up to twenty feet away, depending on the length of the cord.
In exchange for the convenience of not getting up, listeners tacitly accepted manufacturers’ and broadcasters’ supposition that they should not want to get up and that they devote their communal space to sedentary media consumption. These wired remotes made it possible for users to change stations at a distance, but they also limited the family’s mobility by either tethering or tripping them. If the family ran the remote control’s cord under the rugs and furniture, effectively anchoring the device to one location in the living room, they limited the freedom of movement it was ostensibly designed to provide. But if they left the cord out in the open, people might stumble over it. Either way, the remote effectively took control of the room it was in, conquering it on behalf of the radio. Many households still embraced the “luxury” of sedentary media consumption that these early remotes provided, but the devices offered only a negative form of liberty (rather like the leash that allows the dog to go outside).
Lane’s plan to embed remote control in the walls of houses imagines a new domestic relationship to mass media, one in which radio frees the family instead of pinning it down. For Lane, remote control would make radio a part of the house, as inconspicuous yet ubiquitous as electrical wiring or indoor plumbing. With the “radio chassis … housed in plain metal boxes in the cellar, closet, or out-of-the-way corner,” remote control panels and speakers would be run to every room in the house via cables hidden in walls, along baseboards, and under rugs. Lane’s fantasy reimagines the layout—even the equation—of family togetherness and family entertainment. In the illustration that accompanies his article, a father fiddling in his basement workshop, a mother reading in the living room, and a daughter primping in her bedroom can find a new form of remote unity through their mass media consumption. Thanks to technology, the modern family no longer has to come together physically; radio programming becomes the center of a remote experience of family. In fact, in a shrewd turn, remote control becomes the only experience this family has in common.