Only four years after the invention of radio and over a decade before voice was transmitted over radio, Nikola Tesla invented the remote control. In 1898, he demonstrated his remote control with a radio-controlled boat at an exhibition in Madison Square Garden.
Realizing that people would not understand the idea of a radio-controlled device, Tesla yelled out commands to a battery-controlled toy boat causing it to sail right or left. “When first shown… it created a sensation such as no other invention of mine has ever produced,” said Tesla.
Tesla’s remote control could only transmit binary on-and-off signals but used those to control the sail, rudder, and lights of his boat. Not only did he sail the boat, but also used the lights to answer questions he’d shout to it.
Tesla invented and applied for a patent on the remote control. However, patent examiners rejected the application believing it impossible.
In hindsight, Tesla had simultaneously invented and demonstrated radio, remote controls, and the possibility of drones. And disguised the entire demo as a magic trick because nobody, including the highly trained patent examiners, understood his invention.
Tesla tried to sell his invention to the US Navy who rejected it as too flimsy for war. In many ways they were correct: Tesla’s technology was arguably too early. However, over a century later, drones became ubiquitous in war. Even as early as WWII, both the allies and axis used remote control steered, bombs, operating as early cruise missiles.
Like all his other innovations, Tesla never meaningfully profited. His invention was more of a novelty at the time because there were no appliances to control remotely. Much like pneumatic tires, the patent expired decades before there was any use for it.
Zenith’s Eugene Polley eventually innovated the first mass-produced remote control, the Flash-Matic TV remote, in 1955. To this day, couch potatoes everywhere worship him.