Back to the future: 1939 wireless remote control!

Philco's Mystery Control (1939) was a battery-operated radio transmitter, so it didn't have to be in the same room as the radio it was controlling.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
A Philco ad for a radio with Mystery Control

If you're under 40, you might think TVs always had remotes. The early ones were called "clickers," "channel changers," or "selectors."

Sure, there were TV remotes as early as 1956, notably the Zenith Space Command, but remote-controlled TVs didn't really enter the mainstream until the 1970s.

It's true that there weren't many channels from which to choose at that time, but changing channels or volume without a remote was a matter of getting up from the sofa, walking over to the set, and turning big, clunky knobs on the TV.

Nowadays, there's a market for $500 remotes with Web-aided programming and task-based controls. These things can launch cruise missiles while programming your DVR to record Saturday Night Live.

It looks big, but remember 1939 radios were huge! Philco Repair Bench

Way back in 1939, Philco's Mystery Control was advanced tech. Magazine ads in late 1938 had pumped the excitement of the soon-to-be-released remote to the max: "Most Thrilling Invention since Radio Itself!...No wires...No Plug-in...No cords of any kind! It's truly unbelievable! It's mystifying! That's why it's called Mystery Control!"

The Philco Repair Bench Web site also has information about Philco's "Beam of Light" 78 RPM record players from the early 1940s. These turntables had a tiny mirror attached to the player's needle. A beam of light focused on the mirror "excited" a light-sensitive cell to produce the audio signal. High tech indeed!