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Remote inventor kept us from touching that dial
0527HARRIS.RemoteControl
This 1955 photo provided by LG Electronics, shows a Zenith "Flash-Matic," the first wireless TV remote control. Zenith engineer Eugene Polley, the inventor of the device, died May 20 of natural causes in Downers Grove, Ill. He was 96. Polley and fellow Zenith engineer Robert Adler were honored in 1997 with an Emmy for their work in pioneering TV remotes.

A few years ago, the TV Land cable channel erected several statues around the country of such legends as Bob Newhart, Andy Griffith, Mary Tyler Moore and Jackie Gleason.

Someone should build a statue of Eugene Polley, who died recently at the age of 96.

Back in the 1950s, Polley, an engineer for Zenith, invented the first wireless TV remote control. He didn’t know it at the time, but he changed the world by letting us change the channel with our feet propped up.

Aunt Mae and Uncle Harry were the first people I knew who had a Zenith TV with a remote control. I thought it was an absolute marvel. When you pressed the button on the remote, a motor actually turned the channel knob.

At this point, for the younger set (pun intended), televisions once had a knob to change from channel to channel. They also had a volume control knob to adjust the volume.

Now, back to our story.

It was pretty amazing to watch the knob magically turn. It was like something straight out of Bewitched, which incidentally is featured in a statue of actress Elizabeth Montgomery in Salem, Mass. I thought it was the greatest thing and couldn’t wait to go and visit my aunt and uncle.

Aunt Mae was a bit of a free spirit and was also the first person I knew that had an 8-track tape player in her car. She was about the same age as my mother, but she was a big fan of Elvis Presley and had a tape or two in the car. She also made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by mixing the two together. I thought that was cool.

Part of the reason I was in awe of the TV remote control, is because I spent part of my life as a TV remote control. Our set did not have the wireless gizmo, so the job fell to me and my brother to change the channel, adjust the volume and move the rabbit ears.

At this point, I digress to explain to the younger set that rabbit ears was the name given to pair of extended antennas that had to be adjusted at every channel change. When we got a color TV, we added a little aluminum foil to make the picture a little better. That’s all l have to say about that.

When you are a human TV remote, your parents might dispatch you into the den to warm up the TV. Again, for those who missed that era, TV sets had numerous tubes that required a little time before the picture appeared.

I doubt Polley realized what an impact his invention would have on American life. The first one looked like something straight out of a science fiction movie. He was presented an Emmy in 1997 by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, along with co-inventor Bob Adler.

When Adler died in 2007, Polley said the invention was “the greatest thing since the wheel.”

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it changed the world for a generation of TV watchers, not to mention a generation of kids who didn’t have to crawl around on the floor to change the channel.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.

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