The magic of the original Zenith remote control

Originally published at: The magic of the original Zenith remote control | Boing Boing


The clicker was so satisfying in all ways: metallically chunky and clunky. Although I get strange looks from young people for still using the generic term to this day (see also “dialing” a number on the phone.)


Do you also turn down the volume?


We had one of these while I was growing up, but yellow button, not blue.

We also had a lamp that would occasionally turn the TV on or off when you turned its knob, it happened to resonate at just the right frequency.



We had one of those.

The TV could also be set off by random things like my little sister playing with musical toys, a sleeping bag zipper pulled up or down quickly, tapping a spoon against a glass or plate, and other random things.

But yeah, it was an awesomely clever device.


To this day, most IR controls modulate the signal with the original Zenith ultrasonic frequency.


Interesting. I don’t think we ever had one of these. We went from having no remote, to having the corded cable remote that was about the size of a modern cable box.


We had a 13" Zenith color TV for ages that had a single button clicker. It was the only TV we had from the earliest I can remember until about 1986-ish. Then it got moved to my mon’s room as the new 25" TV took the living room over. It was kinda weird going directly from that old clicker to a full keypad infrared remote. “You mean, I can go from channel 50 to channel 23 without clicking through all the other channels?!” (going with Detroit UHF channels since I can’t remember what they were in the Twin Cities anymore. I’m so old.)


pretty sure phone microphones can process the ultrasound, so a little bit of new keyboard software and you’re good to go :blush:


In a perfect intersection of 70s technology and 70s interior design: We had candle sconces on the walls of the living room. If you rattled the decorative chains on these candle holders, sometimes it made just the right tone and turned the TV on.


We had one of these. A slightly later model that was black and had orange and white buttons. Same ultrasonic tech. The front of the remote was a metal mesh instead of an IR lens like you’d see now.

The “volume” button toggled between three fixed levels. You didn’t have fine grained control over volume.

Etched in my brain is the sound the TV made when you changed channels. It sounded kind like a camera shutter. It was a very electromechanical sound, because of course it was electromechanical. Tuners were not digital as they are now, of course, wherein channel changing is all software.


sometimes a knob is exactly what you want.

(I use the version that’s all buttons.)

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By pressing a button on the remote, you set off a spring-loaded hammer that strikes a solid aluminum rod in the device, which then rings out at an ultrasonic frequency. Each button has a different length rod, thus a different high-frequency tone, which triggers a circuit connected to a microphone in the television to finish the command

So THAT’S how this thing worked

(It would make this weird “PTHHHHHHH” sound when you pressed the button.)


I also roll down car windows.


will scrolling come in some time…
thinking projected data… thing…


I worked on TV sets in high school and had one of these remote controls in my dresser drawer for several years after the original set went to spare parts heaven. The CHONK! sound it made was great for fidgeting.

Keep in mind that this control approach worked well because TV sets had 12 VHF channels (at most) at that time, and only a few of them were supported in most service areas. The channel control knob rotated a barrel-shaped turret tuner to select each channel. So if you wanted to watch a UHF channel, you had to pick from one preset channel or get up from your chair.

An earlier innovation that was similarly clever was the pushbutton station selectors on car radios. It took a remarkable combination of gears, levers and a wax covered string to make the system work. They were entirely mechanical but functioned surprisingly well. Any one-of-many type electrical switch is still called a radiobutton selector, regardless of the fact that fewer people know why


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