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Jim Bradshaw: Whiz-bang gadgets come to Louisiana

Today we’re used to doing all sorts of things with the click of a button, or maybe just the wink of an eye, thanks to modern technology. But in 1940 the idea that such things could be done was considered science fiction, if not outright magic.
When a wireless black box showed up at the Philco radio store in Lafayette that May, the newspaper dubbed it a “mystery control” and said it promised a life of leisure to homemakers across America.
The newspaper predicted that science had taken such marvelous strides that someday housewives would “pursue their favorite novels and eat chocolate caramels while reclining on the living room couch,” all the while getting their housework done by whizzbang gadgets
“For enlightenment on this spectacular attainment, acquaintance must be made with a most innocent looking small black box which accomplishes wonders at the slightest beck and call. ... It turns on the radio, it lights up the kitchen range, it turns on the washer … and is even accommodating enough to cause the electric mixer to whir merrily,” the newspaper reported.
The box was called the Philco wireless remote control unit and was ordinarily used to control radio sets in the same way we use remote control on TV sets today.
“The box … is part of one of the newer models of Philco radios, and adds a great deal to the … convenience of the radio sets since [they] may be operated from any room in the home,” according to the newspaper.
Philco advertising of the day proclaimed the box the “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!”
Later in 1940, Philco introduced a radio-phonograph model that could be operated by remote control. In these models, the record changer could be operated either manually or by using the wireless remote control.
But Jerry Butcher, proprietor of Dixie Electric in Lafayette, tinkered with the device sent to his store and made it do all sorts of things far removed from listening to music, much to the astonishment of onlookers.
“Demonstrations of the wonders of the unit” were held on the sidewalk outside Butcher’s store, where he used it to control appliances in his show window “by merely pressing … buttons on top of the box.”
The newspaper predicted a life of bonbons and bridge games for homemakers “if such an innovation as the little black box becomes common in each home.”
Of course, there were a few bugs to be ironed out — the biggest one being the problem of interference from large metal objects, such as the big iron radiators that were common in homes. Another one was that it was apparently easy to fool the device by bringing it near other electrical appliances, such as an iron.
One fellow claimed he could change radio stations by playing with a metal slinky near the mystery device, but couldn’t control which station the slinky would tune in.
Philco phased out the remote controls in 1942, when military radios and other devices for use in World War II claimed the attention of engineers and manufacturing plants.
The first remote intended to control a television set was developed by Zenith in 1950. The remote, called “Lazy Bones,” was connected to the set by a thick cable. Zenith engineer Eugene Polley created the “Flash-matic” the first wireless TV remote in 1955.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.


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