Remote Controls for our TV Sets

Zenith Lazy Bones remote control

We Boomers are buried in gadgets, as are all other generations running around in the early 21st century. In ten years, I’ve gone from reluctantly carrying a (heavy brick) cell phone to proudly sporting an Android phone that is more of a computer/multimedia center than anything else. We’ve seen TV’s go from huge boxes with tiny black and white picture tubes that cost a month’s worth of wages to inexpensive lightweight flat-panel screens with enough resolution to allow us to count every nose hair on our favorite actors’ visages. Our fathers would rejoice if they could cajole 100,000 miles out of a car without major engine and/or transmission work, my wife’s Camry is about to cross that hurdle and my only concern is whether it springs any microscopic oil leaks over the next few years.

Last night, while switching channels on my nice new 32″ high-def I have in my bedroom, it occurred to me what a sweet little device the TV remote has become, and how important it now is for our day-to-day activities.

The inventor of the device that would ultimately allow us to switch from USA to ESPN was, as you might have guessed (not!), the great Nikola Tesla.

Lazy Bones brochure

The much-maligned inventor, who was always getting upstaged by more ruthless rivals, in 1898 demonstrated a device which would remotely control a powered model boat.

The remote that Tesla demonstrated used radio waves, and its principle would go on to power other models, particularly airplanes and cars.

In 1950, Zenith began selling TV’s that came with “Lazy Bones” controllers, which allowed fathers to switch channels with lots of clicks and gear noises, as the big dial on the TV would rotate its way to the requested spot. The remote itself quickly became known as the “clicker” due to its own loud action.

The Lazy Bones was connected to the TV via a wire. it wasn’t until 1955 that wireless remotes became available. The “Flashmatic” used simple light to trigger a photocell on the idiot box, which unfortunately could be triggered by any other visible light that was shined directly at it.

In 1956, the “Zenith Space Command” was invented, using high-frequency sound to do the job. One downside was that all sorts of ultrahigh frequency sounds were present in the world, and they could switch your channels without your input. Another was that the remote would drive your dogs crazy!

Zenith Space Command remote

Remote-controlled TV’s were a very pricey item. It took the addition of six vacuum tubes to allow the fancy wireless remotes to do their thing. It wasn’t until 1960 that TV remotes became much more affordable. That was because transistors became popular in replacing the expensive, short-lived tubes. But amazingly, the ultrasonic remote control would continue to dominate until the early 80’s.

In 1980, a Canadian company was formed called Viewstar, Inc. They began marketing a cable TV box that came with a revolutionary remote control which operated on infrared light rather than super-high sound frequencies.

It was an instant hit, and there must be a special shrine in doggy heaven for engineer Paul Hrivnak, the mastermind behind the new device, which would allow TV channels to be changed without filling the ether with noise pollution.

Nowadays, it’s difficult to picture a world where the TV, the cable box, the DVD player, etc. would have to be manually operated. Many of us use a single remote which performs a variety of functions and which controls a plethora of devices.

In our childhoods, however, it was a rare and amazing sight to see an individual, a “Lazy Bones” if you will, operate a television with a clicker.

Robots on TV

The Lost in Space robot


With those words, The Robot on Lost In Space would begin the terrifying act of waving his (I guess The Robot was a he) arms. When those arms waved, you’d better clear the area. That meant rays were about to be shot and explosions were about to be set off as the mechanized bodyguard of the Robinsons was about to get good and mad.

We grew up with all sorts of robots gracing our black-and-white TV’s. My personal favorite was the Lost in Space model (and no, his name wasn’t Robby. Robby will rate his own future column). Of course, 1960’s TV foxes June Lockhart and Angela Cartwright didn’t exactly keep me away from the show, either.

My best buddy had a miniature LIS robot, and it was pretty cool. Additionally, on the schoolyard at recess one of our favorite pastimes was walking around in robotic fashion, waving our arms and hollering, well, you know what we were hollering. 😉

Big Bill and Oom-a-Gog on Tulsa’s KVOO

Robots were pretty easy to make. All it took was a suit made of metallic parts, perhaps even wooden boxes spray-painted to look metallic, big enough for a man to fit in. Add some battery-powered flashing lights and a robotic-sounding voice, and you had yourself a star for a kiddie show.

Thus, many of us Boomers have memories of Saturday afternoon shows featuring local TV station personnel, including, possibly, the sportscaster in a robot suit.

The photo is from the Big Bill and Oom-A-Gog show, broadcast on Tulsa’s KVOO in the 60’s. Thanks again to my buddy Mike Ransom over at Tulsa TV Memories for the image.

Channel 2 came in a little fuzzy at my house, but I still remember the name Oom-A-Gog, so I must have caught an episode or two. That robot certainly looks familiar. As Mike’s article points out, he was seen at many televised Tulsa events of the decade.

Not sure if it was Oomy, maybe a reader can help, but I recall a local TV robot singing “Bingle Jells” around Christmastime one year.

Weird, wonderful stuff.

There were robots in the cartoons, too. Perhaps the greatest of them all was Rosie, from The Jetsons.

Rosie the Robot

My all-time favorite SF book is Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer. This amazing little novel details the story of an inventor who builds (and loses) a fortune based on two models of robots that assist in household duties. Indeed, the idea of a robot like Rosie, who keeps things neat and in order at her (no doubt about what gender this robot is) futuristic home seems like a very practical place for humans to some day utilize robotic technology.

Rosie had lots of attitude, like all great fictional robots. She even had a love life, of sorts, as I recall that she had the hots for another (presumably male) robot.

Nowadays, robots are commonplace in industrial applications. And shades of Heinlein’s Chore Girl, there are robotic vacuum cleaners that run all over the house on their own looking for dirt. There is even a self-willed lawnmower.

But hey, it’s the 21st century already. Where’s the bodyguard I was promised? Where is the automaton playmate that our grandkids were supposed to have? Indeed, where’s our metallic maid?

I guess we’ll have to settle for the one prediction that did come true: a computer in every home.

I Want My Color TV!

NBC Peacock

The 1950’s was the TV Age. When the decade began, most US households didn’t have televisions. Entertainment consisted of listening to the radio. By the end of the decade, the trend had reversed. Televisions were found in a majority of homes, and radio shows had gone the way of hand-cranked cars.

Televisions revolutionized households. Teenagers of ten years earlier listened to Fibber Magee and Molly on the radio. Now, they watched Wally and the Beav on the idiot box.

That was a pretty profound change. But the next big change was already in the air.

I remember the first time I saw HDTV. It was a golf tournament, and I was astounded to see every blade of grass, and the little dimples on the golf ball itself.

Regular television would never look good again. It was two long years of misery before I could finally afford my own HDTV.

The same feelings befell those who saw color television in the 50’s.

60’s color TV ad

There wasn’t much color television to watch back then. NBC took the lead in providing color programming, but the local affiliates had to upgrade their own equipment before viewers across America could actually see color television shows.

But if the local station was broadcasting in color, a sure-fire way to see it was to drop into the local television store. They would have a color model in its full glory circa 1959.

And, of course, once you had seen the magical NBC Peacock in full color, black and white would never be the same.

But what was a black and white television owner of limited means to do? Easy. You dropped twenty bucks on a color filter that would magically give you a “color” television!

Stick-on color TV filter for black and white TV’s

The filter was blue at the top, green at the bottom, and red in the middle. That meant that, at least in theory, grass would be green, the sky would be blue, and faces would be flesh-colored (if your flesh was as red as strawberry licorice).

After several hours, you would get used to it. Then, one day, you would take the plastic filter off and rediscover black and white television. By then, your painful memories of how gorgeous color television looked had likely faded to the point that good old crisp B&W looked watchable once again.

Now all you had to do was wait until 1967 or so, when color TV finally got affordable enough to purchase in its genuine incarnation.

And thrifty Boomers, if HDTV is still beyond your financial pain threshold, just pop a DVD into your computer. You’ll be getting full HD on your monitor.

Getting the Picture Perfect

Rooftop TV antenna

One of the most familiar suburban sights used to be television antennae on the rooftops. You saw so many of them that they became invisible. In the town where I grew up, we had TV stations from 30 to 60 miles away that we watched. Two (later three, when a UHF station went on line in 1968) were north of us, about twenty degrees apart. The other three were in Tulsa, about 150 degrees to the left.

That meant our antenna had to be turned to get the best pictures. Those rooftop antennas were quite directional. They needed to be pointed directly at the transmission tower to get an optimal signal.

Channel seven in Pittsburg, Kansas, and channel twelve in Joplin, Missouri were close enough aligned that splitting the difference between them gave an acceptably sharp picture.

But if we wanted to watch Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan, or any other CBS offerings, we had to tune in channel six from Tulsa. That meant the antenna needed to be rotated.

My normally acute memory escapes me when I try to remember what dad did before we purchased a rotor. I know he did SOMETHING, because we watched the Tulsa stations frequently. Perhaps we just lived with snowy pictures. We had a black-and-white TV at the time, and the bicolor medium was much more forgiving of weak signals than its color counterpart.

But I do remember dad getting that rotor. It was immediately after purchasing our first color TV.

Antenna rotator controller

The problem with color TV and a misaligned antenna wasn’t the snow. It’s amazing how poor a picture we were willing to accept back then, in this day of 48″ plasma hi-def’s. No, the problem was that the color ITSELF would come and go with a less-than-optimal signal. And having the picture go from b&w to color and back in the course of a few seconds was simply too much to bear.

So, my thrifty father saw fit to invest a few bucks into having an installer come out and put a rotor on our antenna. It was powered by a controller with the Tulsa, Pittsburg, and Joplin alignments preset. You just turned a pointer to the desired location, and the rotor would obey with a “cachunk . . . cachunk” repeated until the light that marked the antenna’s actual direction would meet the pointer’s location. Presto! KVOO in perfect glory!

Rotors worked well for a while. Then, the quality of the rotor determining how long it would take, it would begin freezing up along its path of rotation. You could frequently get past the bad points by backing it up a bit and trying again. But eventually, it would freeze solid. Then, you had a perfect picture from somewhere (if you were lucky) and poor pictures from everywhere else.

Now, you were sunk. You weren’t about to go back to b&w, and you also weren’t going to tolerate color that came and went. So you had to spring for a new unit.

When the above scenario took place later at our home outside Pea Ridge, Arkansas, dad refused to give in. Our antenna pole went down alongside the house, so it was possible to rotate it manually. However, the antenna’s guy wires didn’t allow a full 360 degree turn. So we were still stuck watching Fort Smith’s channel five. But channel five showed all three networks in those days in an arrangement that seems strange today. Its audience decided through letters and phone calls what shows should be shown when. So one station showed shows from the Big Three, frequently switching from CBS top ABC to NBC during the course of a single evening!

Philco antenna manual

But I missed the familiar faces for channel seven’s newscasts. I grew up listening to Vic Cox giving sports reports about the Oklahoma Sooners as well as Kansas and Kansas State. KFSM was OBSESSED with one team, the Razorbacks of Arkansas. And there was NO other team worth reporting on, in their opinion (and that of its audience, myself excepted).

So, I kept turning that antenna hard against those guys until one of them finally snapped off! FINALLY, I was able to get that blasted antenna pointed towards Pittsburg again. Vic Cox’s bald head was a welcome sight, and so was news about OTHER college teams.

Of course, that weakened antenna probably fell over soon after we moved away from that place.

Recently, I installed a small amplified multi-directional antenna in my attic which enables me to watch our local networks in hi-def, something that Dish Network unfortunately does not yet offer in my area. As I tuned into my local station and was now able to see every blade of grass on Augusta National’s fairways, I reflected on how I had ditched my antenna circa 1984, and had returned to it twenty-three years later.

However, I’m stopping short of installing a rotor.

Joe Namath Wears Panty Hose

Joe Namath in his panty hose commercial

If ever a sports personality was perfect for selling stuff on TV commercials, it was Broadway Joe. Men loved him because he was a pretty darned great athlete, one who put the AFL on even ground with the NFL by beating the Colts in Super Bowl III. And the ladies loved him because he was a good-looking bad boy.

Joe’s commercials included some sexy spots with unknown model Farrah Fawcett selling Noxzema shaving cream. Obviously, Joe’s sports hero appeal to guys was greatly overshadowed by that provided by the lovely future Mrs. Majors.

But if he was hawking Right Guard deodorant, it was Joe the quarterback who was selling to America’s guys.

In 1974, he filmed a commercial for Beautymist pantyhose. The camera started at a shapely pair of feet attached to a reclined pair of legs. It slowly, seductively panned upward over the calves, knees, then thighs. Finally, it showed the owner of said gams: JOE NAMATH!

His men fans were flustered. The women? Well, Beautymist sold a whole bunch of pantyhose that year.

Joe was quoted in the commercial (it’s on YouTube) as saying “Now I DON’T wear pantyhose.” Okay, Joe, I don’t either, but we have photographic evidence that you did, at least once!

But it was a very effective ad. Joe’s knees were famous for their multiple surgeries at that point. And the ladies were certainly impressed at the way they made those poor, scarred joints look. Sales went up: the bottom line of advertising.

His reputation took a hit among his male fans. But it was just a blip on the screen, really, and it wasn’t long before they were laughing about it.

So I guess the historical impact of Broadway Joe’s pantyhose-clad legs was that it caused a general lightening-up amongst the masses.

And there’s no doubt that that is a good thing.

Coonskin Caps

Fess Parker and fans, all wearing coonskin caps

One day hundreds of years ago, a Native American had a close look at the raccoon he had just killed. It may have been a wintry day, and his head may have been cold. As he skinned the creature in preparation for cooking, he may have noticed the the furry pelt was just the right size to cover his head. He didn’t know it then, but he had just created a fad of the 1950’s.

I missed out on coonskin cap mania, though I recall seeing a few of them in the 60’s. It all began in 1954, when Walt Disney put on a series of episodes about Davy Crockett.

Fess Parker did two things. First, he captured the imagination of a generation of youngsters with his portrayal of Crockett, and secondly, he wore an article of clothing that said generation HAD to have for themselves. That, of course, would be the familiar coonskin cap.

The fact is that coonskin caps were historically correct. Native Americans did often wear them, as did frontiersmen. As to whether or not Crockett actually wore one, no one can say for sure. Despite a biographical series on History Channel which enlightened me as to the actual accomplishments of this man, a coonskin cap is still the first thing I think of when I hear his name mentioned.

I don’t speak from memory here, but according to my research, kids with coonskin caps and toy flintlocks were seen everywhere you looked in the 1950’s.

While the craze of the 50’s was over, coonskin caps were still seen in stores and on kids’ heads in my era of the 60’s. This was because Crockett portrayer Fess Parker went on to star in Daniel Boone from 1964 to 1970. And old Dan sported a coonskin cap the whole time.

THIS time, it was artistic liberty. Daniel Boone disliked skin hats, and wore felt instead. Oh well, Fess Parker just wouldn’t have looked the same in a bowler.

If you want to get your hands on a genuine Davy Crockett hat, you can buy one directly from Fess, now a renowned vintner.