Tech Etymology: TV Clicker

By Rebecca Greenfield

Zenith_Space_Commander_600edit.jpgOf all the monikers bestowed on the television remote control, clicker makes the least sense. Sure, channel-changer is a mouthful, but at least it describes the device's function. Clicker, on the other hand, doesn't define any of the controller's actions -- there's no clicking involved in the process. So how, then, did it get this onomatopoeic name?

In 1950, the Zenith Radio Corporation developed "Lazy Bones," the very first television controller. Connected by a cable to the TV, the device wasn't exactly remote. But it did promote maximum laziness, allowing viewers to remain seated while changing the channel -- providing "complete automatic program selection in the palm of your hand.

Five years later, Zenith improved on this first control, developing one sans wires. The Flashmatic shined a flash of light into four photoelectric cells placed at each corner of the TV screen. The beam activated a designated cell, which would rotate the tuner dial, changing the channel or adjusting the volume.

While the device paved the way for wireless remotes, it had one problematic feature: the cells would react to any beam of light. If the TV sat in a particularly sunny corner, the tuner would move unprompted -- spooky!

Luckily, viewers only had to shade their TVs for one year. In 1956, Zenith developed a more reliable remote. The Zenith Space Command used sound rather than light to adjust the volume and channels. When a user pushed a button it would strike an aluminum bar, which emitted a certain frequency. A circuit in the TV would detect this frequency and perform the designated action. When pressed, the buttons made clicking sounds, so people started calling these remotes "clickers" and it stuck.

The name has endured even though quieter clickers have been built over time. Throughout the '80s controllers relied on the same principles as the Space Command, but used electronic mechanisms instead of loud mechanical buttons. Our remotes now use an infrared light system -- and do way more than change channels and adjust volume.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/04/tech-etymology-tv-clicker/236965/