Commentary: A remote salute to Eugene J. Polley

The Miami HeraldMay 30, 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.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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