Austrian American taught the world to zap

Robert Adlert (Vienna, December 4, 1913 - Boise, Idaho, February 15, 2007)

On February 1, 2007, the US Patent Office approved its latest patent, a refinement of its revolutionary touchscreen. He died of cardiac arrest two weeks later. Robert Adler, the inventor of the zapper, was 93 at the time.

Among his 200 or so major inventions, that remote control was a bummer, but it was the item with the greatest number of users.

'He hardly looked,' his wife said after his death, 'it was more like a man who read books.' And: 'He was so busy with his inventions that he got the solutions to his technical issues in his sleep.

Then he would suddenly wake up in the night and say: “Now I know, I saw the solution in my dream.”'

Adler died in Boise, the capital of the US state of Idaho, but he was born in Vienna in 1913. His father Max Adler (1873-1937) was Austria's best-known Marxist sociologist in the 1920s and 1930s, and also a professor at the University of Vienna.

His mother was a doctor. Robert went in a different direction, he studied physics and obtained his doctorate in 1937, the year his father died. In March 1938, the Hitler troops entered Austria – at the infamous Anschluss.

In those days, the Austrians were even harder on Jews than the Nazis. Robert, not only Jewish but also the son of a well-known Marxist, had to run for his life. He fled first to Belgium and then to England.

In 1941 he finally arrived in the United States. Here he was able to work at Zenith Radio. During the Second World War, he was not allowed to be involved in the secret projects of the company, because he was a foreigner.

Zenith set up a small laboratory for him where he could work independently. And he specialized in military communications equipment.

Zenith focused on televisions and their remotes in the 1950s. From 1950 they had one with the nice name 'Lazy Bones' (literally: lazy bones), large, heavy and connected to the TV set by cable.

You could trip over such a cable, and that was a risk that the company did not want to bear.

Zenith founder and president Eugene McDonald hated television commercials and dreamed of what today is called zapping. One day he convened 24 of his best investigators and ordered them to invent a wireless contact.

He had been a naval officer under the First World War, and even then the Germans had used a remote control to send small boats carrying bombs towards enemy ships. Its use had been frequent during the Second World War.

But radio waves could not be used, they simply went through the wall, to the neighbor's TV set, for example.

A colleague of Adler's invented the first wireless connection in 1955: photocells built into the TV set that you could control with a kind of flashlight. The system was called 'Flashmatic'. A single ray of sunshine, however, could confuse the programs.

The breakthrough came in 1956… from Adler. He had once visited a steel mill and had been amazed at the high pitch of metal rods striking a hard object. He invented an ultrasonic sound as a signal.

By pressing a button, you set a spring in motion that clicked against small aluminum rods, which in turn created a sound that could not be heard by the human ear.

The sound triggered a vacuum tube receiver in the TV set. The firm called the thing "Space Command." The race in space was in full swing, hence. It was also a big advantage that it worked without batteries.

You could turn your TV on and off, change channels and amplify or soften the sound. In the 1960s, Adler changed his system so that the ultrasonic signals were generated electronically.

That is how it lasted until the arrival of infrared technology in the 1980s.

Adler quickly made a career and became director of the research department. Boss of up to 300 researchers, as many as at Bell Labs, he was then considered one of the most influential physicists in the United States in the world of electronic research.

He resigned in 1978 because his department was severely pruned because of the oil crisis. He didn't feel like leading that slimming down himself. He was now 65 years old.

He worked for another twenty years as an advisor to Zenith Electronics, until the company was taken over by Koreans in 1999. In those twenty years he emerged as the great pioneer of the surface acoustic wave, the SAW touch screen technology, which is becoming increasingly important today.

Just think of the iPhone.

Adler became very wealthy through all his patents. He had no descendants and stopped in his beloved Chicago, where he continued to live all his life, financial support in museums, theaters and concert halls. He loved the Rocky Mountains. He went mountain biking in the summer and skiing in the winter.

He was 89 on his last ski trip. After the death of his first wife, he remarried at the age of 85.

'Don't you feel guilty,' American journalists asked him, 'because you made Americans – the couch potatoes – so fat?' He could get angry at such a question. Especially because he thought he had at least 150 far more important inventions to his name.

If they showed him a modern 'zapper', he said: 'I have no idea what all those buttons are for and I don't care at all.'

He wasn't hooked up to cable TV, which is uncommon in the US, and he thought he was watching TV for about an hour a week. "I never developed the habit of turning on the device," he said. Of course, he also had to develop novelties all the time.

He didn't invent one thing: a device to find that damned, lost 'box' again.