End of an era for couch potatoes

Inventor of the Zenith remote control Eugene Polley.  Photo / AP
Inventor of the Zenith remote control Eugene Polley. Photo / AP

With the news that the inventor of the remote control, Eugene Polley, has died, couch potatoes around the globe have mourned his passing.

The 96-year-old's death was announced by the Zenith Electronics Corporation, for which Polley began his career in the stockroom before moving into engineering and eventually inventing the device, called the Flash-Matic, in 1955, which worked by pointing light at photo cells in the corners of the screen, activating the picture and sound and changing channels. And though these days it's not uncommon to spy numerous remote controls on a coffee table (the average household has four), at the time, Polley's gun-like appliance was revolutionary.

"A flash of magic light from across the room (no wires, no cords) turns set on, off, or changes channels ... and you remain in your easychair!" proclaimed the original ad.

"You can also shut off long, annoying commercials while picture remains on screen! You have to see it to believe it."

Although it may be the cause of countless domestic disputes, the remote control has also transformed the lives of the elderly and those with disabilities. And the idea of Sky would be inconceivable without such a device.

It also comes with negative connotations, embodying the slacker and being a reminder of modern man's laziness.

The remote has probably even transformed the way television is produced. Programmes are made to be attention-grabbing - the makers know viewers can take their valuable ratings elsewhere with the press of a button. In a 2009 survey, one in six people in Britain said that if their remote control was broken, they would continue watching the same channel rather than get up.

Polley earned a US$1000 ($1330) bonus for his work on the original remote and went on to earn 18 patents during 47 years at Zenith.

But soon after his invention, his device was supplanted by a more enduring one made by his colleague Robert Adler. Over time, Adler has often been named as the sole inventor of the remote, something that long rankled with Polley.

Still, he was fiercely proud of his work, telling one interviewer in 2002: "The flush toilet may have been the most civilised invention ever devised, but the remote control is the next most important. It's almost as important as sex."

- Independent

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