How the Remote Control Rewired the Home

Since the 1920s, it’s been changing channels and changing lives, including yours. An Object Lesson.

A 2012 Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Click ‘n Learn Remote. “I’ve got a remote / Ready to roll / Making things happen / ‘cause I’m in control.” Ages 12 to 36 months. (Fisher-Price)

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.

Popular Science 117 (November 1930)

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.

Remote control for a Scott 800B radio console. (Photo used by permission of Phil’s Old Radios), ©1995-2003, Philip I. Nelson.)

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.

Integrated remote control was too invasive (and expensive) to catch on with most home owners, but the problem of how families might cohabit with the mass media only became more pronounced in the TV era. In the 1950s, manufacturers and hobbyists developed new remote controls to combat the annoyance of commercial interruptions and reclaim the living room as a multi-use space. The Blab-Off, introduced in 1953, was allegedly inspired by advertisers’ aural intrusions into the nuclear family. As Laura Albern explains in a personal recollection of her father’s invention, the Blab-Off was a response to the challenges of shared domestic space: “‘There ought to be a way to shut off the blab without running over to the TV,’ my mother griped. ‘It’ll wake the kids.’” Whereas early television advertisements showed families coming together around the set, television remotes acknowledged that such scenes were not always realistic. Americans purchased or built remote controls to address differences in sleep schedules, leisure activities, and even taste among family members.

During the 1950s and 1960s, remote controls like the Blab-Off, the Flash-Matic, and the Space Command attracted a lot of attention but few buyers; remote control was more of an aspirational model for television consumption than a popular pursuit. Television sets occupied over 70 percent of U.S. households by 1956 and over 95 percent by 1969, but as of 1979, only 17 percent of U.S. television households were using a remote control.

In short, remotes were a futurist luxury most Americans were familiar with but did not necessarily own. Such perceptions changed rapidly in the 1980s, however, as remotes became the dominant way to interact with increasingly complex multi-component home entertainment systems.

In the 1970s and 1980s, cable television and videocassette recorders infiltrated American households and made the remote control a practical necessity for home entertainment. Increases in the number of cable channels and prerecorded videotapes available made these components wildly popular and encouraged more sedentary viewing habits, like channel surfing, that required remote controls.

Not all cable boxes and VCRs came with remotes, however, as viewers proved willing to pay more for units with remotes because the remote now felt integral to managing the mass media entertainment and to building a home entertainment center. In the mid-1980s, a VCR with a remote control cost a great deal more than the base model, but the perceived need to control the VCR justified the expense for many consumers. Programming VCRs introduced a level of complexity to home entertainment that baffled many users; remote controls were advertised as the tool to mitigate this complexity. By 1990, researchers found, 90 percent of U.S. households were using remote controls to manage their media.

The role of the television set was changing: Where it had formerly been merely a broadcast receiver (like the radio), it was becoming a multi-media hub, capable of displaying dozens of channels, prerecorded videos, and video games. As furniture and ideology, the entertainment center draws on the media-as-furniture design of radio and television consoles to create a television stand with extra shelving that accommodates but also demands ancillary components like cable boxes and VCRs. Remote control became the interface through which to command the family’s new centralized multi-media environment.

But this reorganization of the living room into a multi-platform entertainment center also put new pressures on the remote control. During the early 1980s, cheap infrared laser technologies helped manufacturers add remote control devices to a wide range of consumer electronics: TVs, VCRs, CD players, even some high-tech bathtubs and toilets.

In this period of rapid proliferation, remotes carried multiple social significances. They implied not only affluence but also technical savvy. They indicated that their owner had purchased “high-end” devices and thus wielded power within a high-tech marketplace. Remotes suggested that their owner was himself high-tech and in demand, so busy and important he could not possibly cross the room to change the CD himself. (And yes, ads for these products certainly did presume male consumers, just as they do today.)

But the very value attached to owning multiple remotes also created the market for comprehensive remote control, for one device to manage all the diverse components of our home entertainment centers. Multiple remotes keep us hunting for “the right one”—whereas a comprehensive remote organizes the chaos by making itself the center of the room. It transforms the entertainment center into a unified entertainment system with each component (including the user) connected to a single controller.

The first “universal remote” was introduced by Magnavox in 1985. Its infrared signal could imitate the control codes in a wide range of different manufacturers’ components. These control codes—which are unique for every manufacturer and component—help each infrared remote to identify itself to its target. These codes prevent the DVD remote from triggering the electric fireplace and the cable remote from deactivating the air conditioner. But they can be imitated; in fact, many of the remotes in your house already possess multi-function capabilities, from the simple TV-VCR modes of yore to the TV-VCR-CBL-AUX-ALL would-be omnipotence of many digital video recorder remotes.

Caetlin Benson-Allott

Universal remotes are difficult to program but even more difficult to stomach. As I mentioned, I have four remotes, one each for my television set, cable receiver, Blu-ray player, and Apple TV box. Most of them can be programmed to manage other devices, but none of them are set to do so. In fact, studies suggest that most users do not bother with the multifunction capacities of their component remotes. As much as we complain about the clutter, few of us actually employ universal remotes or the multi-function capacities in our component remotes—perhaps because awarding so much power to one device feels risky, like ceding control of our living rooms to a single unreliable intermediary.

In 1992, Chris Baber and Neville Stanton found that most users only engaged the “direct action” controls on their remotes, functions like on/off, stop, pause, or mute. Multi-function options and menu-based interfaces rarely become part of our regular interactions with our remotes, but manufacturers keep offering them, more even than when Baber and Stanton conducted their study. Manufacturers may be trying to respond to the glut of remote controls on the market by giving us more ways to interact with their components, but it is possible that what they are actually giving us is remote fatigue. Too many remotes ask too much of us; they overwhelm and even intimidate us with more functional capacity than we are interested in wielding. When it comes right down to it, micromanaging our media experiences runs counter to the very logic of mass entertainment.

Baber and Stanton believe our lack of interest in higher-order remote control “urges far simpler designs for remote control units,” and Apple is one of the few manufacturers listening to—even building a lifestyle around—their advice. The Apple Remote, introduced in 2005, interacts with Apple TV and the Front Row program on some Apple computers. Together with the iPod and iPhone (including iPhone’s new Remote app), it can turn one’s entire house into a single-platform entertainment system.

Such simplified, isolationist visions of remote control—remote control as brand loyalty—began in the mid-1980s when manufacturers like RCA and Sony experimented with preprogramming their infrared remotes to command all the components in their line. For a while, if you bought a Sony VCR, its remote came already configured to control your Sony TV. But these branded remotes did not offer the alluring, streamlined design of Apple products. They looked just as complex as any other media remote, while Apple products visibly manifest their promise to turn your home into a clean, well ordered place.

With its brushed aluminum shell and balanced wheel-and-circle design, the Apple Remote resembles the award-winning iPod Shuffle and simplifies the multi-function interface of the universal remote. It visually recalls Dumont’s first television remote and that company’s promise to unite the home under a monopoly of media production and electronics design.

Left: Apple Remote. Right: Remote control for a 1950s Dumont television console. Photo used by permission of Steve McVoy and the Early Television Museum.

Early remotes promised to transform to the household by reorganizing its physical relationship to radio and television and endowing its king with a high-tech scepter. Today, the Apple Remote offers to restore order to the household—as long as the home remains an iHome. After all, the Apple Remote can only deliver on the simplicity of its design if you use it to the exclusion of all other remotes, and by extension all other brands. Like the flush toilet, it promises to change the way we live; it promises to bring our multi-function, multi-platform lives under a single network. It promises me that I can bring all of the messy interactions of bodies, spaces, and technologies under my thumb, if only I organized my world around its specific functionality. It is, after all, a remote control: the second-most civilized invention ever devised.