Sunday, January 9, 2011

Choice of words: immutable or unchangeable?

Back in 1888 Mark Twain said that:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter -- it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

I dislike the word immutable, although the marketing guru Al Ries has used it in the title of three different books, starting in 1994 with The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. That word immediately reminds me of the MUTE button on the remote control for my television. Once I pick it up my remote, no channel is immutable! I prefer the synonym of unchangeable.

The MUTE button has an unusual history. Most TV remote control technology came first from the Zenith Corporation. Back in 1950 they first sold sets with the Lazy Bones - a wired remote for changing channels, which gave birth to the couch potato. Later on Zenith developed wireless remotes.

In 1952 my uncle Howard developed the first MUTE button - a wired remote he sold for $2.98 as the Blab-Off. It could easily be added to almost any TV set in just a few minutes. His daughter Laura has told the story here.

The Blab-Off consisted of a 20-foot length of lamp cord with a rotary switch on one end, and a pair of crocodile clips on the other. To install it you just had to open the set up and cut one of the wires going to the speaker. Then you stripped a little of the insulation, attached the clips, and hammered an insulated staple into the wood cabinet to keep the clips from being pulled away and disconnecting the remote.

According to Time magazine ads for the Blab-Off were rejected by the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, and the New Yorker magazine. Then the New York Mirror accepted one, and Walter Winchell mentioned the Blab-Off on his national TV show. Reader’s Digest magazine published a two-page article about the Blab-Off in November 1953, and sales took off. Now it was clear that many consumers were upset by loud, obnoxious commercials, and wanted to be able to mute them.

In 1955 Zenith developed the Flashmatic, an optical remote control using four photocells placed just beyond the corners of the screen. When you pointed a flashlight at them you could turn the set on or off, change channels, and mute the sound. In 1956 they developed the Space Command ultrasonic remote which could turn the set on or off, change channels, and control the volume. That ultrasonic remote didn’t even need batteries - the tones were generated by hammers striking aluminum rods (like little tuning forks). Later on came much more complicated remotes using pulsed infrared.

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