Robert Adler, the prolific inventor who made channel surfing possible, died on Feb. 15 of heart failure. He was 93.
Born in Vienna, Adler earned a doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna. He immigrated to the United States in 1941 and joined the research department at Zenith Electronics Corp. (then Zenith Radio Corp.). During World War II, Adler was unable to get classified clearance so he worked in a private lab, building high-frequency communications equipment for the U.S. military.
Zenith produced the first tethered TV remote control in 1950. Dubbed the “Lazy Bones,” the device turned a television set on/off and allowed the user to change channels. When the cord proved to be a safety hazard, Zenith encouraged two dozen engineers to invent a wireless way for viewers to change channels from the comfort of their sofa. In 1955, Zenith colleague Eugene Polley designed the “Flashmatic,” a wireless remote that operated on photo cells. A year later, Adler made the device more efficient by adding ultrasonics, or high-frequency sound. Their new battery-free, four-button clicker was called the “Zenith Space Command.” Between 1956 and 1982, Zenith sold more than 9 million of these remotes. Today, remote controls work by using an infrared light beam.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the wireless remote, Adler appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno in 1996. The next year, he and Polley won an Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for their “pioneering work in the development of the remote control.” In 2000, Adler was inducted into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame.
During his 60 years with Zenith, Adler designed numerous electronic devices and applications. He worked on a synchronizing circuit that helped people receive better TV reception in rural areas. In 1974, Adler envisioned a product that would later become known as the digital video disc, or DVD. His work with surface acoustic waves formed the basis of touch screen monitors, which are now used in airports and movie theaters. He even helped develop the electron beam parametric amplifier, a device used by the U.S. Air Force for long-range missile detection.
Adler formally retired from Zenith in 1979, but remained with the company as a technical consultant for another two decades. He continued to work on his own inventions at home and eventually earned more than 180 U.S. patents. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Adler’s latest patent application for advances in touch screen technology was filed on Feb. 1.
Ironically, the “Father of the Remote Control” didn’t watch much TV and only began subscribing to cable three years ago. Instead, he enjoyed downhill skiing, hiking and traveling around the world. A lover of arts and culture, he was also fluent in three languages (German, English and French).