Thursday, 24 May 2012

Hero or Villain? The Inventor of the Remote Control

by Joanna Godfree

(image source:
Eugene Polley, inventor of the TV remote control
(image source:

It’s twilight. Come for a walk with me. As we pass the houses in this street where dusk is falling, many curtains are not yet closed. In this front room we can glimpse a capacious and inviting sofa. Across the room, a large TV screen holds the image of a large smiling face, then cuts to a long shot of somebody singing. As we pass the next house, the same picture flickers in the corner … more people are sitting watching on the sofa. The next house – the same scene. As we walk along, we can follow the progress of the programme – and in each house the viewers are cosily ensconced on the sofa, remote control in hand.

This is progress! When I was young, sometime halfway through the last century,  I would have to get up and walk to the set to change the channel -- seriously. Admittedly there were only two channels, and I wasn’t really allowed to watch ITV because of the advertisements, so it didn’t happen very often; but if the volume needed to be turned up, or the vertical hold adjusted (look it up), I would have to creep sideways to the set so as not to obscure the sightline of fellow viewers. Inevitably, I would get in the way of the deciding final ball of the innings, Sooty’s cheeky sign-off line or the crucial HIT or MISS vote for the best pop song of the week.

Vision of the future (or the present)?
From Pixar's Wall-E (image source:
Enter Mr. Eugene Polley, who died on May 20, 2012, aged 96. He worked as an engineer in the USA for 47 years, achieving 18 US patents along the way; foremost among these, arguably, was the invention of the TV remote control. Maybe Mr Polley (known to his friends as Zapper) and his family had the same problem as mine, but, whatever prompted him, in 1955 his invention of the Flash-Matic bestowed on the user the power of turning the television on and off and changing channels. Fantastic! But wait a minute … could it be that this handy gadget is also partially responsible for the current epidemic of obesity?

The Metabolic Institute of America certainly thinks so: 'Lack of physical activity: the remote control, video games, the automobile, television, and, to some extent, the computer are all part of the environment which discourages people from being physically active':

For the MIA, the remote control represents the passive consumption of visual stimuli that has become increasingly the norm in many homes. Don’t like the programme you’re watching? Flick over to another. That one’s boring too…? There are another 250 or so to choose from. Advert break? Yawn, see what’s on ‘the other side’ – probably never return to the original programme. All from the comfort of your Lay-Z-Boy.

So – Mr Polley – hero or villain? You decide. I leave you with a vision of the future from Wall-E: 

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