The Zenith Space Command is an iconic wireless television remote that was one of the earliest of its kind. It represents a time when remotes were not taken for granted, and it features one of the most influential and intriguing buttons in history. In today’s digital era, hardware often takes a back seat to the software that powers our devices. Button of the Month is a monthly column that explores the physical buttons we interact with on our phones, tablets, and controllers.
If you’ve ever heard someone refer to a TV remote as a “clicker,” it’s because of the 1956 creation by Robert Adler. This elegant gadget, reminiscent of Star Trek, introduced a durable and satisfying clicking action for controlling gadgets. Its simplicity of design has since been overlooked.
Zenith initially experimented with wireless remote controls that used beams of light to communicate commands with the television. The Flash-Matic, launched in 1955, relied on this technology. However, it was quickly abandoned due to sensitivity issues with full-spectrum light. Zenith’s engineers then opted for a simpler approach, using sound instead of light.
The Space Command is a mechanical engineering marvel. When a button is pressed, a spring-loaded hammer strikes a solid aluminum rod inside the device, producing an ultrasonic frequency. Each button has a different length rod, creating a unique high-frequency tone that triggers a circuit connected to a microphone in the television to carry out the command. No batteries are required, which was a crucial feature desired by Zenith to prevent customers from thinking their TV was broken when the battery died. Additionally, the remote does not need to be pointed directly at the receiver, unlike the Flash-Matic.
I discovered my Space Command, a 1970s model, in a bin of old remotes from my father’s TV repair business. It has mostly served as a retro-futuristic decoration on my shelf, but sometimes I pick it up and play with it. The buttons provide a satisfying clicky feedback, similar to igniting a flame on an outdoor grill. Though you can’t hear the ultrasonic frequency they emit, you can feel the clack of the hammer against the aluminum rods and the simultaneous confirmation clink when pressing a button. The button-pressing experience may be slow and clunky, but it gives a sense of accomplishment, even if it’s just adjusting the TV volume.
The use of ultrasound in the Space Command was a deliberate choice. Radio waves were not suitable due to their ability to pass through walls and interfere with neighboring TVs. Adler knew that ultrasound would not go through walls, making it an ideal solution. The decision to use high-frequency sound waves that are inaudible to humans was to ensure that the remote’s commands could not be heard.
The mechanical Space Command remained the go-to method of controlling televisions for a quarter of a century. Even today, some people still refer to their remotes as “clickers.” However, it had its flaws, such as susceptibility to picking up other high-pitched frequencies and accidental channel changes from jingling keys or coins. As TVs evolved with more functions and features, remotes with infrared blasters and advanced circuit boards were developed. This led to the current flood of remotes with squishy buttons scattered across plastic slabs, often being an afterthought and ending up in junk drawers.
Modern universal remotes can be overwhelming and confusing, causing some people to tape over parts of the device to avoid confusion. However, with the rise of streaming devices like Roku, TV remotes have returned to a minimalist aesthetic with only essential buttons for play, home, volume, and voice control. Manufacturers should consider creating blocky remotes with strong buttons that won’t get lost between couch cushions.