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The Real Story Behind the Remote Control

Eugene J. Polley lived his entire life in the Chicago area, where he worked for Zenith Electronics for 47 years. Hired as a stock boy during the Depression, he eventually became an engineer with 18 patents to his credit. But his most famous invention would become known as the TV remote control.

In 1950, Zenith released a product called Lazy Bones, a cumbersome device tethered to the TV by a long cord. Zenith's founder demanded something better. So in 1955 Mr. Polley produced an innovation called the Flash-Matic, a ray-gun remote control sold just as TV sets were making their way into every American home. "Absolutely harmless to humans!" the Flash-Matic ads promised. Within decades, a television could be found in practically every American home, and nearly every TV set had a remote to go with it.

At one point in his life, Polley had high hopes for his invention. He said, "Maybe I did something for humanity—like the guy who invented the flush toilet." But although the TV remote has helped the disabled and elderly, it has also been blamed for contributing to obesity, sparking marital spats, and causing many TV viewers to "zone out" as they "channel surf." For many people, a TV remote control has become a symbol for convenience and even laziness. As John Ortberg once half-jokingly wrote, "Life without the remote control is an unbearable burden for the modern American family."

Towards the end of his life, Polley seemed to regret some of these negative consequences of the TV remote. He said, "Everything has to be done remotely now or forget it. Nobody wants to get off their fat and flabby to control [their own] electronic devices."

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