Numerous sources have confirmed the death of Eugene Polley—by technical trade, an inventor with 18 patents (plus a hand in developing the push-button car radio and the video disk), but by larger definition a liberator, whose creation of the remote control freed Americans from the burden of physical movement every time they wanted to watch something else, and made convenient entertainment at the touch of your fingers a part of everyday life. Polley died at the age of 96, an admirably long and full run that makes us feel okay about lovingly joking that they called it only after whacking him against the table a few times, such is our sincere affection for his invention.
Polley first developed his existence-altering device in 1955, introducing the "Flash-Matic" tuner while working for Zenith. The gun-shaped gadget fired a beam of light at corners of the TV screen, activating photo cells that could wirelessy turn the set on and off or change channels, forever doing away with both the hardwired "Lazy Bones" box and the reason to have children. Polley's invention was crude yet revolutionary, advertised (as The Associated Press notes) as providing "TV miracles" while also assuring neophytes that it was "absolutely harmless to humans." It didn't last long, replaced the very next year by the more effective "Space Command" model developed by fellow engineer Robert Adler and other, incrementally advanced improvements on his original design, but its impact was epochal.
Not only did the remote control change people's home lives, it influenced TV as a medium by allowing viewers to interact freely with it, "channel-surfing" an ever-widening variety of channels launched to catch their attention and stocked with shows geared toward their increasingly short attention spans. And while that may be a lamentable aspect to some—in addition to the general "couch potato" effect—who among us does not wield the remote control like a mighty totem of modern man's conquering of all he surveys, which he can change to something else when he gets bored of surveying it? Tonight, pause from your Polley-enabled laziness to join us in a "mute" button moment of silence and offer him your gratitude.
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