Farewell to Eugene Polley, Inventor of the Wireless Remote

Some people change the way we view the world. Jesus. Marx. Freud. And Eugene Polley, inventor of the wireless TV remote, who passed away Sunday at age 96. More specifically, Polley created the Flash-Matic, a device whose place in the history of broadcasting was described by Greg Beato in a 2006 Reason column:

Reader, if you seek his monument, look around.The first [remote], dubbed the Lazy Bones, was a small, grenade-shaped unit with a cable that literally tethered it to the TV. It was good for changing channels and tripping pets and old people. Zenith's second remote used "a magic beam of light" to change channels and adjust volume. The "Flash-matic" looked like a prop from a low-budget sci-fi movie and worked slightly better, especially in cloudy climates. In sunnier regions, however, light streaming in from an open window could duplicate the Flash-matic's actions. Just when you were about to find out if Meta Bauer really had murdered her ex-husband on The Guiding Light, all might go silent. Zenith founder E.F. McDonald felt a better solution was needed.

The Space Command had quirks of its own. The ultrasonic tones it emitted, undetectable to the human ear, often caused dogs to flinch and howl. Jangling key chains and ringing telephones could inadvertently change the channel. But the Space Command worked well enough to satisfy McDonald, and it stayed in production long enough to normalize the idea that TV could be a more interactive, two-way medium....

Once viewers started conducting their own Nielsen ratings every few seconds, TV had to grow more responsive, more competitive. Good night and good luck, Edward R. Murrow and Playhouse 90. We wanted Jethro and Ellie Mae on The Beverly Hillbillies, people devouring pig rectums on Fear Factor, cops tasering protesters on YouTube. Thanks to the Space Command, we got exactly the media we desired, and deserved.

Polley didn't invent the Space Command and its successors, but those other engineers stood on his shoulders, or rested on his barcalounger, or whatever the appropriate metaphor is for a topic like this. So even with their sunshine problems, Polley and his Flash-Matic have as good a claim as anyone to the shift in perception that came when we gained the power to change everything onscreen with a small movement of a finger. Film editors had already altered our worldview with wipes, dissolves, and cuts; but now the viewer could insert her own cuts, jumping merrily from Kraft Television Theater to I've Got a Secret to the static on channel four. As the number of channels multiplied, our private montages grew ever stranger, one disconnected image piling onto another as we groped toward a program worth watching for more than a few seconds at a time. Every Man an Eisenstein.

We're living in Andre Breton's world.In 1951, four years before Polley's invention arrived, the surrealist capo Andre Breton described his favorite way to watch movies. As a young man, he wrote, he had appreciated

nothing so much as dropping into the cinema when whatever was playing was playing, at any point in the show, and leaving at the first hint of boredom--of surfeit--to rush off to another cinema where we behaved the same way, and so on (obviously this practice would be too much of a luxury today). I have never known anything more magnetising: it goes without saying that more often than not we left our seats without even knowing the title of the film which was of no importance to us anyway.

What was too much of a luxury then is cheap and easy now. The surrealist practice became standard suburban behavior, something to do from the comfort of your couch while munching on some Cheetos and drinking a beer. Thank you, Eugene Polley.

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  • Ben the Duck||

    "Mute."

  • Pro Libertate||

    I remember the Before Time, when I had to stand up, walk over to the TV, and physically turn a knob-like implement to change channels. And to adjust the volume and other settings! All for six channels.

    I kneel before Polley. RIP.

  • ||

    Six channels? You mean four, right? ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS (WGBH out of Boston) were all we had before cable. We didn't have a UHF antenna all the way back then. Sure, we got ABC from both Boston and Hartford, but they played the same stuff, so there were more than four "channels", but it amounted to four overall.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Why didn't you get a UHF antenna? Those station were usually better than the affiliates. IIRC, channel 38 from Boston had Star Trek re-runs, WB cartoons, and Red Sox games.

  • ||

    I don't know; you'd have to ask my dad, who coincidentally loves TV, so I have no idea. And one of the affiliates used to play Star Trek reruns every day at 6, which I would watch after coming home from our lake club every day in the summer.

  • tarran||

    Channel 38's Movie Loft, and Channel 56's Creature Double Feature FTW!

  • ||

    My grandparents down in New Jersey had cable before almost anyone else, and they had a veritable cornucopia of channels. Even way back then, they must have had at least 20 channels, maybe more. And they had one that would play Godzilla/King Kong movies all day on the day before Thanksgiving. Fuck, that was awesome.

  • Pro Libertate||

    No UHF? We had UHF down here. Three network, PBS, and two UHF channels.

  • ||

    I remember our family owning a VCR that had a wired remote. I think it only had one button, "record/pause", which of course was used to record your favorite movies and TV shows and conveniently remove the commercials while taping.

  • sarcasmic||

    When I grew up my parents had a remote control: Me.

  • nipplemancer||

    Is he gonna be buried under the cushions of the couch like my remote?

  • Mo' $parky||

    Along with some loose change and stale chips.

  • nipplemancer||

    and all of my cigarette lighters.

  • Spartacus||

    I like to jump around among several shows at a time when watching TV. Drives my wife crazy, so I don't usually do it when we are together. I have discovered that a LOT of channels all run their commercials at the same time. This also happens with football games, which is a lot more surprising (to me).

  • sarcasmic||

    Ah yes. Love those hard breaks around 20 and 50 past when every single channel it seems is running commercials.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Before the remote control, kids weren't fat. So I guess we now know who to blame for that.

  • B.P.||

    This morning, the anchor on my local news program decided to make the connection between obesity and the remote control while setting up a story about Mr. Polley's death. Attention Ms. Haircut: Shut up and read the teleprompter.

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