Sunday, February 18, 2007

Robert Adler-Our Hero

Robert Adler, who held 180 patents for electronics devices, died February 15th at age 93.

Dr. Adler is best known as the a pioneer in the development of the Remote Control. The wireless remote. Yep he's the one. What would we have done without that thing. Seriously. Think about it. No channel surfing. Horrors!

Adler was born in Vienna, Austria in 1913 and was educated there; after earning his Ph.D. in Physics at age 24 from the University of Vienna (1937), he emigrated to the US, and found work in the Research division of Zenith Electronics Corporation (then Zenith Radio Corp) here in Chicago.

During World War II, Adler specialized in military communications equipment. After the war, he turned his attention specifically to television technology. One early invention of Adler's was the "gated-beam" vacuum tube, which eliminated a great deal of sound interference in television receivers at one stroke, thus reducing costs as well. Adler also led the team that invented a special synchronizing circuit that improved reception at the fringes of a television station's broadcast area.

But Adler's greatest consumer triumph was the wireless remote control.

Zenith produced the first TV remote in 1950, dubbed "Lazy Bones." It performed on/off and channel-changing functions fairly well, but was cumbersome to use, and was attached to the TV by a cord that soon proved a safety hazard to Zenith's less nimble customers. Now remember channels were changed with a knob, no digital. Yeah, that knob that always came off or broke and you ended up using pliers to change stations. Well, this remote's buttons operated a motor in the set that actually turned the knob, clunk clunk. There were only three TV channels, but it also had a mute button for those annoying commercials.

In 1955, Zenith produced the "Flashmatic," a wireless remote that was basically a flashlight pointed at photo cells located at the corners of the TV cabinet: unfortunately, the photo cells reacted to sunlight as well as the remote. So open the blinds and change the channel. OMG!

The Zenith Space Command
The next year, Robert Adler's solution was for the remote to "communicate" with the TV by sound, not light --- specifically, by ultrasound, that is, at frequencies higher than the human ear can hear. Adler's remote control unit itself was very simple: it did not even require batteries. (huh, say what?) The buttons struck one of four lightweight aluminum rods inside the unit, like a piano's keys strike its strings. (Hence the remote's nickname The Clicker). The receiver in the TV interpreted these high-frequency tones as signaling channel-up, channel-down, sound on/off, or power on/off.

In the 1960s, Adler modified his system to generate the ultrasonic signals electronically.
Over the next twenty years, the ultrasound TV remote control was slowly becoming a standard adjunct to the television. By the time remote technology moved on to infrared light technology in the early 1980s, more than nine million TVs had been sold, by Zenith and others, with Adler's remote control system.

Although the world considered the remote his greatest triumph, he did not. It was his greatest patent for an everyday device, but he considered his many esoteric applications more important. In the 1960's he explored the use of surface acoustic waves in frequency filters for color television sets. Today, acoustic wave technology is essential to both television screens and touch-sensitive computer displays and used in cell phones today.

Dr. Adler could have been a billionaire if he had cashed in independently on his patents but he remained a loyal Zenith Corp. and the subsequent LG Corp employee. By 1963, Adler had risen to Vice President and Director of Research at Zenith and he was a technical advisor to the company until 1999. Adler has also won countless prestigious awards, including the IEEE's Edison Medal (1980). His last patent was filed just three years ago.

A lover of the arts, Dr. Adler was active in the Chicago cultural community for decades, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and community theater. A world traveler for both business and pleasure, he was fluent in German, English and French.

He was also as passionate about hiking and skiing and flying as he was about science and the arts. He was a pilot, an avid downhill skier until age 89, and was still hiking in the past year.

So, next time you change the TV channel with it's great reception, picture and sound or use your cell phone or hit withdrawal on the cash station touchscreen, think of Dr. Robert Adler. What a wonderfully accomplished life, and afer all he invented the couch potato too.

1 comment:

Chris said...

This is awesome!