The inventor of one of the most deceptively pernicious devices known to consumers -- and the advertisers who love them -- has passed away.
“Couch potatoes have lost a friend,” reads the hed over Maureen O’Donnell’s obituary for Eugene Polley, who was 96, in the Chicago Sun-Times. In 1955, the longtime resident of suburban Downers Grove, Ill., invented the “Flash-Matic,” the first wireless TV remote control, while he was an engineer for Zenith. The device, which is now in the Smithsonian Institution, looks like a ray gun that Flash Gordon might have used to zap invading space creatures but it was also a nod to the likes of “Gunsmoke.”
“The Flash-Matic remote, which worked like a flashlight, was shaped like a snub-nosed revolver,” writes Margalit Fox in the New York Times. “The shape was a considered choice on Polley’s part, as he explained in 2000, letting viewers in the age of ubiquitous TV Westerns ‘shoot out’ commercials.”
The Flash-Matic also made the TV audience less active, Fox points out. “For the first time, viewers could comfortably exercise dominion over sound and image without simultaneously exercising the body on the march between couch and dial.”
The Los Angeles Times’ David Lazarus offers an clever obsequy in a one-minute “Money Minute” video and written commentary, which begins: “Amid all the ballyhoo over what a bold visionary Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is, let's pause for a moment to appreciate the work of Eugene Polley....Think about it. Before Polley's brainstorm, people actually had to get up out of their seats and cross the room to change TV channels.”
Which, more than one fitness expert will tell you, has contributed mightily to the obesity crisis we are mired in like a rotund torso seated in its easy chair.
“Fidget, get up and change the TV channel,” advises The UltraMetabolism Prescription author Mark Hyman in his endorsement of a now-archived government program encouraging citizens to take “small steps” toward more physical activity. (Turning off the TV entirely and cleaning your basement would be even better, he then suggests.)
But convenience was not the Flash-Matic’s true innovation.
“The Flash-Matic had another bonus,” writes the Sun-Times’ O’Donnell. “It could silence the TV, a big plus in the view of Zenith’s founder, Commander Eugene F. McDonald Jr., who loathed commercials.” (Although he was evidently quite adept at advertising and PR himself.)
“When Gene Polley came up with this concept to mute the sound during commercials, Cmdr. McDonald loved it,” Taylor said. “The commander ordered it into production the next day.”
And advertisements gleefully proclaimed the anti-advertising message, Emily Langer informs us in the Washington Post. “‘Absolutely harmless to humans!’ Flash-Matic advertisements promised. ‘You can even shut off annoying commercials while the picture remains on the screen.’”
In reality, the Flash-Matic wasn’t the first remote control. Zenith had a corded device called the Lazy Bones in 1950 that proved to be too dangerous to pedestrians. And it was replaced in 1956 by The Space Commander, a device invented by a colleague at Zenith, physicist Robert Adler.
“In response to charges that his invention contributed to the obesity crisis in America by creating generations of couch potatoes, Dr. Adler was unapologetic,” Mike Daisy writes on the InventorSpot website. “He told the Associated Press in 1996 that, ‘I don't take responsibility for couch potatoes. They really should exercise.’”
Langer suggests that Polley, however, once expressed some ambivalence towards his invention in an interview with the Palm Beach Post. “Everything has to be done remotely now or forget it,” he said. “Nobody wants to get off their fat and flabby to control these electronic devices.”
Polley and Adler were both presented with a special Emmy Award in 1997 for their inventions but Polley considered himself the real deal. “A father has to be present at conception,” he said in a 2002 interview quoted by Fox. “And if you’re not, you’re not that father.”
“Quirky, fun-loving, creative and occasionally a little curmudgeonly,” writes the Sun-Times’ O’Donnell, “Polley left behind 27 checking and savings accounts, a testament to his distrust of banks after living through the Great Depression, said his son, Eugene J. Polley Jr.”
After his bootlegger father left the family, he was raised mostly by his mom, Langer reports, and first started working for Zenith Radio Corp. in 1935. His wife predeceased him; he also leaves a daughter, Joan.
A stepchild of Polley’s device, the Dish Network’s Auto Hop commercial zapper, currently has network television executives stewing in their Nielsens. NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert called AutoHop, which allows viewers to remove all commercial entreaties from prime-time shows, “an attack on our ecosystem” and “an insult” to both advertisers and networks last week during the annual upfront festivities, our David Goetzl reported in MediaPost’s TVBlog.
One of its progenitors, Vivek Khemka, an electrical engineer with an MBA who is vp of product management at Dish, says “Dish is simply trying to help consumers and in the process is a friend of broadcasters,” Goetzl writes.
But who knows what unforeseen consequences might arise from depriving said consumers from a regular diet of mind candy and patriotic exhortations to consume in the interests of the homeland? All we need look at is our waistlines, after all, to realize that every invention has consequences that cannot be readily predicted.