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Remote Control

The universal desire to avoid television commercials was the driving force behind the development of the remote control; the president of Zenith-of all people-hated the interruptions. The first remote, developed by Zenith in 1950, ran a cable from the viewer to the set. The first wireless remote, introduced by Zenith in 1955, used light sensors; later models used ultrasonics. Infrared remotes, which came along in the early 1980s, were so cheap everyone could afford them. Today the remote is standard equipment; 99 percent of television sets and 100 percent of VCRs come equipped for action at a distance. Especially for children who grew up with remote controls, surfing from channel to channel is part of the television viewing experience. Remote controls have been blamed for making us couch potatoes, but that’s an unfair rap; it’s not as if people without remote controls used to get up and change the channel frequently.

Contribution to the lexicon: “Channel surfing”

Cathode-Ray Tube

The cathode-ray tube (CRT) made its debut in 1897 in an oscilloscope, developed by German physicist Karl Ferdinand Braun. The “killer app” for the CRT, of course, was television, which appeared in the 1920s but didn’t enter most American homes until the 1950s. Now it’s everywhere. “TV is the main experience of waking life for most people in western industrial nations,” claims Jerry Mander, author of Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. That may be overstating the case, but not by much; the average American watches several hours of television a day.

Put a computer interface on the screen, however, and we’re not quite so passive: We interact with it, turning the screen display into a means to an end rather than the end itself. But the emergence of terms like “Internet addiction” illustrates that often many of us would rather sit at a CRT than do anything else.

Contribution to the lexicon: “The tube”

Liquid Crystal Display

Television and computer screens convey massive amounts of visual information. The downside? They’re found in a big heavy box, because they generally require a cathode-ray tube. Liquid crystal displays (LCDs) make graphical displays portable. Although liquid crystals were discovered in 1888 by Austrian botanist Frederich Reinitzer, they weren’t used for displays until 1971, when Hoffmann-La Roche patented the “twisted nematic” LCD-the kind now found in calculators and watches. The active-matrix LCD, in which every pixel is controlled by a transistor, arrived in the 1980s, making possible laptop computers, miniature TVs and portable DVD players.

Although LCDs still have “issues of video speed and viewing-angle dependence” to be worked out, Webster E. Howard, vice president for technology at FED Corp. of Hopewell Junction, N.Y., predicts that thin, flat, liquid crystal displays will replace the bulky CRT monitors on our desks within five years. If they come into widespread use, he says, LCDs will owe their success to laptop computers: “The need for the portable computer was what made possible the investment in this technology that ultimately led it to be economical and cheap.”

Contribution to the lexicon: “Laptop”

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