Flash Matic Tuning, a device to shut off long, boring commercials

Love this old ad for Zenith's early remote control, the "Flash Matic," which let you "shut off long, annoying commercials while picture remains on screen!" (a process that was eventually known as "muting"). I grew up with a Zenith TV that had the next generation of remotes, a little box with a cunning series of ultrasonic tuning-forks inside it that were struck by tiny hammers controlled by pushbuttons on the remote's face; we used to try to trick the receiver by jingling keys, sneezing, and rolling squeaky-wheeled coffee-tables around to get it to change the channel or up the volume.

This ad (and the other one that accompanies it at the link) are quite explicit about the primary use of remotes being to switch off ads -- call them the pop-up blocker of their day. It's no wonder that major rightsholder groups objected to remote controls when they were introduced, it's easy to imagine the forebear of today's NAB lobbyists explaining that the mute button was a form of theft, the Boston Strangler of the TV industry.


  1. Soon they will be genetically modifying our fingers so we cannot block our eyes or ears, only our mouths. 

  2. ultrasonic tuning forks!? I thought you were kidding. But no tis true!

    “In 1956, Robert Adler developed “Zenith Space Command”, a wireless remote.[5]
    It was mechanical and used ultrasound to change the channel and volume.
    When the user pushed a button on the remote control, it clicked and
    struck a bar, hence the term “clicker”. Each bar emitted a different
    frequency and circuits in the television detected this sound.”

    Also from same article, Tesla demonstrated a radio controlled model boat in 1938!

  3. Not as good as Monty Python’s remote control. It was a man wired to an electric shocker. When he was zapped by the housewife, he’d change the channel.

  4. By the looks of that magic light, they seemed to have solved the problem of someone standing in front of the TV and blocking the remote. The beam is strong enough to make the flash-matic do double duty as a dismember-matic.

  5. Love the fine print. “Absolutely Harmless To Humans!” Of course, it may make your dog explode. (Or your penguin)

  6. If the entertainment industry had the kind of political influence in the 1950s that it has today, Congress would have outlawed remote controls and made possession of one a felony, because of this use.

  7. Actually Telsa demonstrated the remote controlled boat in 1898.  Only a couple of years after he demonstrated wireless transmission. 

    In 1898, he demonstrated a radio-controlled boat to the public during an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden. Tesla called his boat a “teleautomaton” -wikipedia

  8. My grandparents had a big old Zenith console in the 60’s that would occasionally flip a channel when my dad pulled out his keys. The remote had only four buttons – channel up, channel down, mute, on/off – and was solid as a brick. I also recall that the buttons were very stiff and made an distinct audible click when pushed. One day, dad was horsing around and scooped me up and dangled me upside-down by my ankles. I let out the kind of ear shredding high-pitched shriek that only little girls can, and the TV turned off. I was mighty impressed with myself.

    1. My grandfather had one of those.

      It tended to change channels when you’d jingle keys (or any metal object), flush the toilet, or when certain people spoke.

      Fortunately he loved demoing that for people, the problems never bothered him.

  9. When  I was a kid we had a loaner TV while ours was in the shop, and it had an ultrasonic remote control.  Our dog had a metal chain collar and every time he shook, the jingling collar would change the channel.

  10. The model in this ad was never a commercial success because of problems with interference from other light sources.

    My father was the Zenith TV distributor in a small west Texas town in the 1950s and 1960s. Among my jobs at the store was the repair of the very Space Command sonic remote controls you describe, Mr. Doctorow. You’re correct in describing them as cunning devices. When they failed, it was usually due to a hard shock (as from being dropped on a hard floor) snapping one of the tension wires that suspended the tuning forks.
    The four-button remote was actually a later, more deluxe model. Originally one button worked the mute; the other rotated through the VHF channels in a single direction, with the TV turning off after Channel 13. It required a separately pitched tuning fork and spring-fired weight mechanism for each separate control feature, and Zenith’s marketers originally thought that no one could possibly want to cycle through the channels in the opposite direction, or to be able to modulate the volume between on and off.

    The manufacturers’ suggested retail price was roughly $100 higher for models with the Space Command feature, but the dealers’ cost differential was much, much lower, so we made a better profit margin on TVs that included remotes. We also made money from repairing and replacing the remotes, especially since our repairman — me, from about ages 6 to 16 — was paid less than minimum wage.

  11. They were also intensely analog devices: Before solid-state circuitry took over in the 1970s, TV tuners were mechanical affairs in which turning the channel knob realigned a different set of contact points  that would bring in the various preset VHF channels; when UHF channels came along, those channels typically had their own tuner. The Space Command’s components inside the set, then, included a motor to do what the channel knob previously had done. But those were very, very reliable (via analog simplicity), and they very rarely needed repair. Typically a TV’s CRT would wear out before the mechanical components of the remote control would, so we could cannibalize and re-use lots of parts.

  12. with the zenith we had the trick was to drop a dime onto another dime from about 10″ above – reliably changed the channel up. This formed the basis of my 8 year-old self’s first (and most successful) magic act.

  13. We too had a Zenith with the ultrasonic remote. I had a windup toy car that would make the volume change (one of the buttons would change the volume between low, medium, high, then turn the TV off).

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