1905: Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres-Quevedo uses a radio remote controller to operate a boat more than a mile away in the Bilbao estuary. The crowd is amazed.
Guglielmo Marconi’s famous wireless demonstration at London’s Toynbee Hall in 1896 used a fixed telegraph-key transmitter to ring a bell attached to a receiver that a colleague carried around the room. You could debate whether ringing a bell is just sending a signal or remotely controlling a device.
Nikola Tesla patented a wireless device for “controlling mechanism of moving vessels or vehicles” in 1898 and demonstrated a radio-controlled boat at New York’s Madison Square Garden the same year.
Torres-Quevedo (aka Torres Quevedo and Torres y Quevedo) began his work around 1901, as a way of testing dirigibles without risking human life. He built a prototype of his Telekine (or Telekino in Spanish, both from the Greek for distance-motion) and obtained patents in 1902 and 1903. He was soon able to control a tricycle almost 100 feet away, using a telegraph key to make it go back and forth and to steer it left and right.
He went on to test small boats in a pond at Madrid’s Royal Country House in 1905. But the big public demonstration came in Bilbao late that year.
Torres-Quevedo stationed himself on the balcony of the yacht club. The boat, the Vizcaya, carried eight passengers (.pdf).
The Telekine aboard would receive radiotelegraph commands to control the Vizcaya’s electric engine. Using just a wireless telegraph station, Torres-Quevedo guided the boat from the yacht club to the middle of the estuary, executed turns and reverses, and brought her back in.
Christian Hülsmeyer’s January 1906 patent application for radar precursor included a channeling technique to ensure a device would respond only to the signals intended for it. He off-handedly suggested the same technique could also be used turning lights and other switches on and off. But Hülsmeyer’s invention never went anywhere.
Marconi, Tesla and Hülsmeyer notwithstanding, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers recognized Torres-Quevedo as the originator of “modern wireless remote-control operation principles.”
Torres-Quevedo’s advances in dirigible engineering helped the British and French armies to counter the aerial domination by Germany’s zeppelins during World War I. He also designed the Aero Car cable ride over the Niagara Whirlpool in Canada.
The remote control you know best is for television. The first wireless TV remote was the Zenith Space Commander in 1956. It relied on ultrasonic tones and was a big hit, even though it upped the cost of the TV set 30 percent. Ultrasonic remotes were superseded in the 1980s by infrared control.
Image: Portrait of Leonardo Torres Quevedo, Spanish engineer.