Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Rant #742: Remote Control

Eugene Polley died on Sunday. He was 96 years old.

Other than living a long life, why am I bringing up his death?

This was the guy who helped create what we now affectionately refer to as the "couch potato," as Polley was the inventor of the first wireless TV remote control.

Sure, others will berate him for making us lazy--and still others will knock him for creating a device that allowed viewers to bypass commercials by turning from channel to channel without leaving the comfort of our easy chair--but this guy had a great idea and carried it out.

This new gizmo debuted in 1955 and was only available on Zenith televisions with what was called "Flash-Matic Tuning." The contraption looked like a ray gun--a perfect shape for the flying saucer crazy 1950s--and it was even advertised as a commercial squelcher: "You can even shut off annoying commercials while the picture remains on the screen" read the advertising copy.

How did it work? According to reports, Polley's Flash-Matic pointed a beam of light at photo cells in the corners of the TV screen. Each corner activated a different function, turning the picture and sound off and on, and changing the channels.

He also had a hand in creating the video disk, and several other inventions that enlivened our viewing habits.

Happily, Polley was not shunned by the industry he helped move forward. In 1997, he was honored with an Emmy for his work in pioneering TV remote controls.

The first TV remote I ever used was in about 1965 or 1966. I believe my friend Howie's family had a TV with a remote, and the TV even had a timer that you turned for the amount of time that you wanted to watch the TV.

My family's TV didn't have any of these gadgets, and I probably didn't have my first remote until the early 1980s or so.

But think of how revolutionary this was.

You didn't have to get up to turn the channel, you could go from channel to channel at a whim, and when commercials came on, you could bypass them.

I remember that when I got my first remote, this is the thing that I found to be so inviting and revolutionary about the whole thing--not having to watch commercials if I didn't want to!


Now, remotes are pretty commonplace, whether you get your TV from satellite, cable, phone, or even simply via over the air. They are as standard for TVs as air conditioners have become for cars.

Nobody blinks an eye about them now--except when they are misplaced or lost. Then everyone goes haywire looking for them.

But let's salute Polley. This guy had a great idea, had the knowledge to carry it out, and produced something that we simply cannot live without.

R.I.P. Mr. Polley. Your creation is American ingenuity at its very, very best.

And related to some previous posts, yes, I was on the air, and yes, you can listen to the show at the following link:

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