May 222012

Eugene Polley Died

Eugene Polley changed the way we watch TV – indeed, he might be the inventor of one of the most ubiquitous technology devices (if we put aside the telephone) ever. Polley, who started in Zenith’s stockroom and worked his way up to the engineering department, invented the wireless TV remote control.

The first version of the remote was a handheld device tethered to a TV by a cable (it was actually called the “Lazy Bones’ of all things). Polley’s genius was to work out how one might do this through a wireless connection in 1955. The “Flash-matic” as it was called, was a ray-gun like device that you pointed (and re-pointed - it was temperamental) at the TV to change channels.

The Flash-Matic - the first wireless TV remote control

The Flash-Matic - the first wireless TV remote control

As with most new technologies, no one foresaw how it would change human behavior. Gizmodo sums it up nicely:

Cordless control allowed audiences a vastly new experience of consuming television: For the first time ever, the could switch programs without getting up to turn the dial. No longer were programs endured simply because they were too lazy to get up off the couch. Commercials could be avoided by switching channels, or muted, with just the press of a button. “Channel surfing” become a thing.

The remote also inspired significant changes in television programming and commercial airings. After an NBC research term discovered that 25% of their audience changed channels as soon as the credits started rolling, the NBC 2000 unit (responsible for primetime branding of the network) invented the “squeeze-and-tease,” the split screen credits that roll alongside the last few minutes of a program. (A current example of a show using the squeeze-and-tease is HBO’s Veep.) Commercials were moved from their between-program slot to right in the middle of a show, to avoid losing viewers to the lag time of an advertisement transition.

As with all technologies that successfully work their way into our lives, we haven’t been the same since.

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