Imagine this scene: Your family is gathered together, and like most gatherings, everyone is crowded around the TV. You're all engrossed in the latest episode of the hottest reality show. Suddenly, Uncle Ned, clearly fed up with what's on screen, turns to you and says, "Pass me the clicker, kid."

You understand he's referring to the TV remote, but have you ever wondered why Uncle Ned calls it the "clicker"? You don't even recall the remote ever making a sound.

Zenith Space Command Remote Clicker Device for Televisions
Photo by Jim Rees (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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The TV remote is actually older than you might think. You can thank Austrian-American inventor Robert Adler for sparing you the hassle of manually changing channels and making those laborious trips to the TV.

Adler invented the Zenith Space-Command in 1956, which while it sounds like something Buzz Lightyear joined in high school, was actually the world's first wireless remote.

Changing the Channel Was a Lot Louder Back Then

The first Zenith Space-Command television remote controller operated a little differently than its modern counterparts. In fact, not only was it wireless, it didn't require batteries, because this neat little contraption used sounds to turn your TV set on/off, the volume up/down and change the channel (granted, there weren't many channels).

Why Were TV Remotes Called the Clicker?
Vintage Zenith Ad/Canva

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The Click Didn't Change the Channel; It Was the Ultrasonic Frequency

In his article about the Zenith Space-Command on tech website The Verge, Andrew Marino describes the source of the clicking sound perfectly: "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."

Spring-loaded hammer in action meant a big clicking sound. The clicker was born.

You can see the Zenith Space-Command in a 1972 commercial for the device featuring an unamused butler (we used a younger sibling to change the channel in our house) and the iconic clicking sound.

Where's the "Clicker" Today?

The "clicker" stayed in demand for an impressive 25 years, but had its share of issues, like household noises such as rattling keys interfering with its operation, and its high-frequency sounds sometimes agitating the four-legged members of the family. Whoops.

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As technology made everything more complicated continued to simplify our lives, remote controls had to evolve to meet new demands, making the simplicity of the old 4-button Jetsons-style handheld device a real downer.

However, Uncle Ned's request for the clicker to watch his Roman Empire shows on the History Channel serves as a reminder that its legacy endures.

Photo of Zenith Space Command Device by Jim Rees (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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