Nikola Tesla unveiled one of the world’s first wireless remote controls at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1898

Nikola Tesla unveiled one of the world’s first wireless remote controls at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1898

What is the history of the remote control?

Remote controls are one of the most ubiquitous symbols of our modern technologies.

Serious electronics connoisseurs might have a dozen remotes scattered on their coffee tables for their entertainment system; even your friends who are less fond of electronics likely have a handful of remotes at their disposal, controlling everything from TVs and air conditioners to car door locks.

And of course, all of us probably have at least one or two remotes permanently lost amid an army of dust bunnies under the couch.

Although remotes are most closely linked to television control in popular culture, these devices actually predate TV. In fact, remote controls are an invention born in the 1800s.

Renowned Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla created one of the world’s first wireless remote controls, which he unveiled at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1898. He called his fledgling system, which could be used to control a range of mechanical contraptions, a “teleautomaton.” For his demonstration, Tesla employed a miniature boat controlled by radio waves. The boat had a small metal antenna that could receive exactly one radio frequency.

Tesla sent signals to the boat using a box — his version of a remote control — equipped with a lever and a telegraph key (originally designed to send Morse code signals). The signals generated from this box shifted electrical contacts aboard the boat, which, in turn, adjusted settings for the rudder and propeller, allowing the operator to control the boat’s motion.

Financially, Tesla’s remote-controlled boats were a flop. His intended client, the U.S. Navy, thought the technology was too flimsy for war. But the concept of remote control caught on and quickly spread to many other types of equipment.

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