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They Put Zap On the Map
Steve Rushin
December 13, 1999
Our Men of the Millennium? The intrepid inventors of the sports fan's most indispensable accessory
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December 13, 1999

They Put Zap On The Map

Our Men of the Millennium? The intrepid inventors of the sports fan's most indispensable accessory

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"For many people, it's the most-used object in everyday life," says 84-year-old inventor Gene Policy, a man curiously overlooked in every list of the top 10 people of this millennium. "It gets more use than the flush toilet." Indeed, with the advent of dependable adult undergarments, the sports fan can endure indefinitely without a flush toilet. But he—yes he, for the object in question was designed to satisfy the male psyche—could scarcely survive an hour without Polley's epoch-making invention: the TV remote control.

Whether you call it the flipper, clicker or zapper—the French infinitive for channel surfing is tapper—the wireless remote has freed us from the tyranny of ever having to get up again. "The usual practice, when you walk in a room, is to flip a light switch," says 86-year-old engineer Dr. Robert Adler, who, even more than Polley, made the remote a household appliance. "We do not climb a ladder every day and turn a lightbulb in the ceiling. Shouldn't the same be true of television?"

For fulfilling this basic human desire—and for turning each of us into a couch-bound tetraplegic—we honor Adler and Polley as our Men of the Millennium. More than 99% of all televisions sold today come with a remote. It is a bone of contention in most every marriage in the developed world. Polley was a Zenith engineer in 1955 when he had his eureka! idea of shining light from a flashlight onto photocells in a TV screen as a means of manipulating the dial, and he received a $1,000 bonus for his brainchild. "But over the years," he says, "it has given me so much more."

Polley's temperamental "Flashmatic" sold 30,000 units in '55, though channels would change unbidden if, say, sunlight shone on the set. Within a year, fellow Zenith engineer Adler seized on ultrasonic frequencies as a more reliable means of zapping. Adler's innovation sold more than nine million units and became the industry standard for a quarter century. The two men, who live 20 miles apart in suburban Chicago, were inspired to invent their remotes when the zillionaire Zenith czar, Comdr. Eugene F. McDonald, ordered them to do so. "A direct order from the Commander meant if something is not done by tonight, you will be shot," says Adler, who fled his native Vienna and the Nazis in 1939. "The Commander was quite a marksman, "says Polley. Thus he insisted on one crucial design element for that very first Flashmatic remote: It was shaped like a light-beaming pistol to be aimed, Elvislike, at your TV. The viewer wasn't merely tuning out an annoying announcer; he was executing him.

So the remote control would combine the American male's two greatest passions: firearms and driving around aimlessly without ever asking for directions. For what is channel surfing but the blind hope that you will, without consulting a guide, somehow stumble upon your destination? Like the steering wheel, remotes are—in most marriages—among the last strongholds of the husband. "Remote control," says Polley, "is really about one word: control?

Or so we like to think. Essayist Roger Rosenblatt has suggested that the remote control has made people "more remote than in control," addictively flipping, never alighting. If the remote has shortened attention spans and dumbeddown programming, well, Dr. Adler insists he is not Dr. Frankenstein. "Am I responsible for the development of the universal couch potato?" he asks. "The answer is no! Don't use me as an excuse. Go out and get some exercise!" An avid skier, Adler scarcely ever watches TV, save for Nova. The newest set in his house is 20-years-old, he doesn't have cable, and he still uses his ultrasonic four-button clicker, rather than the current infrared models, which once again beam light at the set.

Yes, society has circled back to Polley's original concept. This flip-pin' genius now has a glorious 75-button remote in his home. An emperor in his easy chair, Polley likes The Golf Channel, loves to channel-surf and sometimes wears one of those novelty caps sold at truck stops. The cap's foam crown declares him, now and forever, KING OF THE REMOTE CONTROL.

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