Days without remote seem remote

May 27, 2012


We are gathered here today to memorialize a man who revolutionized our lives.

So what did Eugene J. Polley do? What was the nature of his great leap forward? Did he invent the PC? Did he invent the cell phone? Did he invent the Internet?

No. Eugene J. Polley invented the wireless remote.

You young’uns won’t remember this, but back in the day, when you wanted to change channels you had to actually get up from the couch and embark upon an arduous trip five, six, sometimes even seven feet across the living room where you would manually turn a “dial” until the desired channel sprang into view in all its black and white glory.

While you were up, someone would always ask you to adjust the rabbit ears (ask your dad about the rabbit ears) to get rid of the snow (ask your dad about the snow). Then it was a long trudge back across the living room to the couch where your evil sister had taken your seat and wouldn’t give it back no matter how nicely you threatened to drop her Chatty Cathy (ask your mother about Chatty Cathy) down the sewer, leaving you no choice but to shove her and then she punched you and then mom started yelling and didn’t want to hear how it wasn’t your fault, and next thing you know, you’d been sent to bed early and you didn’t even get to see “Gilligan’s Island” that night.

Not that your humble correspondent is holding a grudge or anything.

Anyway, Polley — who died of pneumonia last Sunday at 96 — was an engineer for Zenith. In 1950, the company had released a remote control that attached to the set by a cord. One can only guess how many customers twisted how many ankles before Zenith decided this was not a great idea.

Five years later, Polley fixed this. His remote, which looked like a glorified hair dryer, operated by sending light beams to receptors on the set. Now, the idea of a set that changed channels by responding to light had its own flaws. It was not uncommon to open the blinds and suddenly find Huntley and Brinkley on the screen where Cronkite had been a moment before (ask ... well, you know).

Plus, the wireless remote was initially a luxury item. Only those with an extra $100 to spend could enjoy the convenience of sampling all their entertainment options (CBS, NBC, ABC) from the comfort of their chair. Kids whose parents were not “made of money” were stuck at the mercy of their evil sisters and had to figure out ingenious ways of changing channels without surrendering their prized seat on the couch. Little brothers were good for this.

Eventually, of course, the wireless remote became ubiquitous. Polley (along with whomever had the bright idea to build a mini-fridge into a reclining chair) ushered us into a world where it became possible, depending on bladder strength, to watch hours and hours and hours and hours of television without ever leaving the couch — to sit zombie-like on one’s fat assets, spouse and family ignored, spastically switching channels, searching for that holy grail of modern existence, “something good to watch,” by sampling one’s entertainment options (still CBS, NBC, and ABC — and about 500 more).

Convenience has long been the watchword of technological innovation, the promise implicit in every new dishwasher, ice maker, word processor and Roomba: it will make our lives easier.

Eugene J. Polley’s device did make our lives easier — too much so, a diabetes specialist might say. Polley himself would have agreed. As he once groused to the Palm Beach Post, “Everything has to be done remotely now or forget it. Nobody wants to get off their fat and flabby to control these electronic devices.”

As true as that is, one still cannot help but be grateful to Polley for his device. Granted, one’s evil sister might disagree.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


tomatogrower 5 years, 10 months ago

Good grief. A funny story reminiscing of the days before remote controls, which those of us who are older can relate to, and someone has to criticize. It's a wonder you didn't accuse him of being a racist, because Polley was white. What is the matter with you conservatives. I can see you now--- It's a beautiful spring day, the sky is blue, the flowers blooming, and you would come out and say "Darn, liberals probably created this to make people feel better."

tomatogrower 5 years, 10 months ago

Weird. What happened to the post before mine?

Terry Sexton 5 years, 10 months ago

It vanished. I don't have the remotest idea as to why.

tomatogrower 5 years, 10 months ago

I makes my post look really weird. The poster was wondering if Pitt's sister had something to do with the way he turned out, or something to that effect. As if, most of us didn't argue with our siblings over a preferred place to sit. Of course, I know some kids nowadays who have their own suite from which they never emerge. They never sit and watch TV with their parents. When I was a para, one young man told me his parents went to bed without saying good night, while he played video games until he got tired. Then he would go tell his sister good night.

deec 5 years, 10 months ago

Oh, please tell me the disappeared was a ghost sent back to the grave!

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 10 months ago

LOL How about their own suite and a door to the outside to make it easier for the pizza guy. Who is bring pizza for the party, which the parents will never find out about.

1southernjayhawk 5 years, 10 months ago

Hey, I don't have a 180 different viewpoint than Pitts today!!!

Flap Doodle 5 years, 10 months ago

I remember having to get up and shovel more coal into the television so it would keep working....

trinity 5 years, 10 months ago

One of my favorite "rememberies"-mom telling one of us kids to go "warm up" the TV so we could get to watchin' as soon as the dishes were done. :) Tubes.

Linda Endicott 5 years, 10 months ago

Ah, the good old days...

We also used to sit and watch the test pattern...which in those days were a bunch of Indian heads (pardon me...Native American heads) in various places and sizes across the screen...I'm sure some engineer could explain the reason for it...those were black and white TVs, of course...I've always thought the test pattern for color sets to be very boring...

And when the set was turned off for the night, we would sit there and try to watch without blinking to see how long it took the little dot of light in the middle of the screen to disappear...

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 10 months ago

The first remote control for a television set that I ever saw was not described in the article at all. It was quite a clever gadget,. I thought. That was in about 1967 or so.

There were three or four buttons on the remote, and when you pushed one of the buttons, it would sound a "Gong", like a doorbell. It was totally mechanical. Each of the "Gongs" had a different frequency, and you needed to point it directly at the television set to get it to work.

That was the first remote control I ever saw for a (Color!) television, and I never did see another remote that worked by producing an audible sound to change channels and volume. I don't think very many of them were made, and I think it was on a Zenith color television.

Indeed, I remembered correctly! From wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zenith_Electronics

"The 1955 Flash-Matic remote system, invented by Eugene Polley, used a highly directional photo flash tube in the hand held unit that was aimed at sensitive photoreceivers in the four front corners of the TV cabinet. However, bright sunlight falling on the TV was found to activate the controls.

Lead engineer Robert Adler then suggested that ultrasonic sound be used as a trigger mechanism. This was produced in the hand held unit by mechanically-struck aluminum rods of carefully constructed dimensions - a receiver in the TV responded to the different frequencies this action produced. Enough audible noise was produced by pressing the buttons that consumers began calling remote controls "clickers". The miniaturization of electronics meant that, eventually, the sounds were produced in the remote unit electronically but the operating principle remained in use until the 1980s, when it was superseded by the infra-red light system."

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