Eugene Polley, 96, died on Sunday. Few Americans recognize his name, although virtually every American uses his invention on a daily — in some cases, hourly, or even more distressingly frequent — basis.
Polley held 18 U.S. patents, but his crown jewel was the wireless TV remote controller. In 1955 he invented the Flash-Matic, a gun-shaped, battery-powered device that changed the channel and turned the TV on and off through use of light signals — and the infernal “clicker” was born. The Flash-Matic was eventually replaced by sonic, infrared, and radio frequency devices, but Polley’s device set the nation firmly on the road to a land where Americans planted their ever-expanding keisters on their sofas and watched TV for hours where their only exercise was the twitch of the thumb muscle needed to change the channel. He even won an Emmy for his impact on television.
Consider the social consequences of the wireless TV remote controller. Not only has it served as a crucial enabling device for an increasingly overweight and lethargic population, it has also been the cause of countless family squabbles. How many wives have been brought to the boiling point by thoughtless husbands who annoyingly change channels repeatedly during commercial breaks — never spending more than a millisecond on the latest showing of The Shawshank Redemption, which for some reason is always being aired, or any other program as they zip through the dozens of channels offered by modern cable television services? How many brothers and sisters have fought over control of the clicker, and therefore whether the family watched Glee or Jackass? And how has the remote controller affected the brains, and shrinking, gnat-like attention spans, of children who have grown up with their thumb on the remote?
Few people can claim to have had such a profound impact on the social conditions of the world around them. Eugene Polley, R.I.P.