Herman Remote Controlled

By Maggie George (illustration, Mike Hall) Like many people, I find it so satisfying at the end of a hard day to be able to come in from the cold winter chill and settle in front of the television. I love to watch my favourite programmes which I’ve recorded and promised myself I’d catch up with at a later date.

That was exactly what I had planned to do that evening. Curled up with a slice of my newly-baked Herman-the-German Friendship cake and a large glass of Chardonnay, I pressed the “play” button and eagerly awaited the recorded film to start……nothing. I pressed the remote button again, still nothing. No Mr Darcy smiling charismatically at Elizabeth Bennet. Just an empty, blank screen.

Eventually, silently practicing all the Anglo-Saxon I had picked up over many years of working in the construction industry and, having checked the socket, remote batteries and T.V. were all working, the sad realisation that the “digi-box” was broken and I was not going to be transported to the world of Jane Austen’s Pemberley began to sink in.

Granted, my recorder was actually more of a museum piece than anything. It had lasted far longer than I ever expected it to. My son had been trying to persuade me to upgrade it for a long while. It was past its sell-by date anyway, was how he put it. But I come from the generation who don’t believe in throwing something perfectly functional away just in order to keep up with the “Joneses” in the rush for the latest technology.

For example, our family must have been one of the last in the street to use a box-brownie camera which was held in front of you at waist height to take your snaps. My mother would set us into position and demand that we stand statue-still and smile for what seemed an age while she delighted in taking our pictures. This often entailed a considerable wait until eventually her photographs closely resembled Victorian post-mortem portraits. Smiles frozen on faces and our little limbs mottled with goose-bumps while our hair blew in wayward curls around our heads, we braved the fresh sea breeze (as my mother called it, although more often than not, fresh air fiend that she was, it was more likely a Force Eight gale).

Hers wasn’t one of the original cardboard box cameras which were first introduced in 1900 by Eastman Kodak, but rather a Brownie 127 which were to become so popular between the early 1950s through to the late 1960s.

By the time my husband and I began taking pictures of our own offspring we had moved on to the incredible instant Polaroid camera, which used self-developing film thereby literally producing instant pictures. Although Polaroid announced in 2008 that film would be discontinued, they later announced in 2009 that they were to bring back the instant film cameras after all.

Although the modern idea of a commercial “instant” camera was unveiled by the American scientist Edwin Land in 1948 when he developed the “Land Camera”, Samuel Shlafrock had come up with the invention of an instant camera incorporating a portable darkroom built into a single compartment as early as 1923.

Most of us know that the earliest video camera and indeed colour television was developed by John Logie Baird and used by the BBC during the 1930s for their experimental broadcasts and the rest as they say, is history. But what if you aren’t always around to watch the televised programme when it is broadcast live?


Enter Charles Ginsburg who in 1951 developed the first VTR (video tape recorder) for capturing live images from the television cameras by converting the information into digital electrical impulses and saving the information onto magnetic tape.

Ginsburg, known as the “father of the video cassette recorder” was born in 1920 in San Francisco and his pioneering work on early video cassette recorders paved the way for the VCRs sold in 1971. Ginsburg was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame where he was credited with one of the most significant technological advances to affect broadcasting and programme production since the beginning of television itself. He died in 1992 aged 71.

Along with the advent of wizardry such as television and video cassette recorders came the need for further couch-potato devices such as remote control units.

The earliest remote controls were mostly used for military purposes, the German navy having developed radio-controlled motorboats with which to ram enemy ships in World War One. By the time World War Two was underway radio controlled weapons and bombs were being used.

American scientists experimented to find non-military uses for remote control after the war years. An automatic garage door opener was invented in the late 1940s followed by the first TV remote controls in the 1950s.

Although the first televisions went on sale in the late 1920s, the first remote control intended for use with a television was developed by a company called Zenith. They developed the “Lazy Bones” in 1952 which was a long cable attached to the TV set. By pushing the buttons a motor would be activated which would rotate the tuner in the set. However, considering there was a very limited selection of channels to choose from the device didn’t gain popularity.

By 1955 the Flash-o-Matic was invented. This was a flashlight which was shone toward light sensitive cells in each of the four corners of the TV, each corner having a different function. This was only successful though if people remembered what each of the corners operated. Not to mention that, should the set be in sunlight, the rays would affect the operations of the TV.

By 1957 the wireless remote using ultrasonic waves was in use. However, clinking metal could affect the TV, and so it wouldn’t have been advisable to bang the cake tins around too much if a Herman-the-German Friendship cake was being baked, nor was it a good idea to let the dog near as the high frequencies sometimes made them bark and might well annoy the cat too as your pet moggie can also detect ultrasound. It was to be twenty years more before the infrared remote as we recognise it today came into being.

Each button has its own command which is then sent to the TV set in a series of signals. The digital code for each button is identified by a tiny sensor called a photo-detector in the TV which then translates it into a command.

The effect of this technology means that the average family will have around ten remote controls at any one time. Considering they are probably one of the most commonly touched items within the house, it’s hardly surprising that they carry more germs than almost any other household item. After all, when was the last time YOU cleaned your remote controls?

It’s a standing joke in most households that the man of the house likes to have full jurisdiction over the remote. In fact, according to a recent survey of over two thousand British men and women, one of the top ten most romantic gestures is giving your partner control over the TV remote. Personally, I’d rather have my partner give me a nice little gift box containing something sparkly. Although, when you consider that eleven percent of people think that a man offering to clean the house is romantic whilst seven percent of people believe the same of men putting the toilet seat down, it becomes clear that I see life rather differently than Mr and Mrs Average.

How many of us actually remember the days of pre-remote controls? When you had to walk across the room to adjust the sound, change channel or even switch the television or sound system on or off. Consider too that in those days you were most likely to be watching programmes in black and white rather than colour, which did not become widespread until the 1970s.

We already enjoy being able to turn the heating up or down with a remote control. Imagine living in a home where we can also control all the lighting at the touch of a button. This is already commonplace in quite a few properties. Not to mention operating the lawn sprinklers from the comfort of our armchairs or opening and closing the curtains without rising from our bed or sofa.

Rapidly being developed is the technology to connect all the systems and devices centrally. A fully co-ordinated approach to day-to-day living. Imagine being able to open your garage, unlock the door and turn off the burglar alarm in one operation. Science fiction became science fact in our lifetime.

But one thing which still can’t be done remotely is baking my Herman-the-German Friendship cake. Although of course I can set the oven timer to come on when I want it, that’s if I could only follow the instruction manual that came with the oven. As for being able to fathom out the instructions of my new digital recorder! Still not to worry, if all else fails I can always open a fresh bottle of wine to go with my slice of Friendship cake and settle down to read a good Jane Austen novel instead.

From the February 2014

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