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Inventor of the TV remote wants to set the record straight
[February 05, 2006]

Inventor of the TV remote wants to set the record straight


(Chicago Tribune (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) CHICAGO _ On Sunday, when about 90 million people are expected to gather around TVs for the biggest sports party of the year, it might be fitting to raise the remote controls in a salute to Eugene Polley.



Polley, 90, who lives in a junk-cluttered house, plays pool for pocket change and likes a smooth gin and tonic, is the patron saint of couch potatoes _ or he would be, if they knew who he was.

Fifty years ago, Polley invented the wireless remote. In return, he got $1,000 and a lifetime of gnawing irritation at being squeezed out of pop culture history. Now, he's trying to set the record straight.


"Not only did I not get credit for doing anything," said Polley, whose friends call him "Zapper," "I got a kick in the rear end."

About a half-billion remotes, in various incarnations, are on coffee tables, between couch pillows or who knows where in homes across the United States. They have revolutionized the way TV is viewed and produced. Their technology has been adapted to open garage doors and turn on furnaces.

But the man who gets almost all the credit for inventing them is not Eugene Polley, a college dropout from Lombard, Ill. It is Robert Adler of Northbrook, Ill., an Austrian-born physicist with a PhD from the University of Vienna.

Adler came to work at Zenith Electronics Corp., then based in Chicago, in 1941. Polley joined Zenith as a mechanically inclined stock boy in 1935 and navigated his way into the engineering department.

The wireless remote Adler invented, known as the Space Command, was vastly more popular than Polley's earlier version. Zenith and other electronics manufacturers sold 9 million of the Adler-inspired "ultrasonic" units from the time they were introduced in the fall of 1956 until about 1982, when technology using infrared light began overtaking the consumer market.

But the Space Command came about a year after Polley created his remote for Zenith. Called the Flashmatic, it was a flashlight shaped like a sprinkler nozzle. The viewer would direct the beam of light at sensors in the corners of the set to change channels or turn the picture and sound on and off.

The Flashmatic was so popular Zenith was unable to keep up with demand. In less than a year, the electronics manufacturer sold 30,000 of the units. For his work, Polley received a $1,000 award from Zenith.

But the Flashmatic had some glitches. If the set were placed in direct sunlight, the television could pop and sputter as if a poltergeist had taken up residence. And when the batteries in the remote started to run down, consumers thought the television was malfunctioning.

When Zenith's founder and president, Eugene F. McDonald Jr., called for development of a better remote, Adler came up with the concept of using sound. His "clicker" had small hammers that struck rods to produce a high-frequency sound that signaled the television.

But Adler's "ultrasonic" technology also was flawed. The TV could be set off by keys jingling, dog tags rattling or a coin jar being emptied on the carpet in front of the set. It also was expensive, adding $100 to the TV's cost.

Those flaws, however, were perceived as less obvious than the problems with the Flashmatic. So corporate muscle got behind the ultrasonic technology, leaving historians and experts to scratch their heads at the mention of Eugene Polley.

"I've heard Adler's name," said Jim Barry, spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association and former editor of what is now Sound & Vision magazine. "Polley doesn't ring a bell."

Barry added that electronics inventions typically are the product of "a variety of people working on them." As time passes, Barry said, "it kind of coalesces around one person."

Adler, 92, agrees that history has focused on him, and he is more than a little uncomfortable with the distinction as father of the remote.

"I don't believe it has a single father," said Adler, who continues to work as a consultant. "But the general public wants one name to attach to something."

Bob Gerson, founder of This Week In Consumer Electronics (TWICE) magazine who has written about consumer electronics since 1961, noted: "Everybody's always referred to Adler as the true father of the remote. But Polley came first. That doesn't always make you the hero."

In the end, Polley's technology, crude as it was, proved best. Today's infrared remotes use a low-frequency light beam detected by a receiver in the TV or DVD player or any number of consumer electronic devices.

Zenith's corporate history Web page credits Polley with the first practical wireless remote. But its biography of Adler calls him the "Father of the TV Remote Control," a status that gained strength and depth over the years. Adler surfaced on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno and was featured routinely in news stories on the anniversaries of the Space Command's debut.

In 2000, he was among the inaugural class of electronics pioneers inducted into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame, in large part because of his creation of the Space Command. His fellow inductees that year included Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Alva Edison and Guglielmo Marconi.

Polley merited a brief mention in Adler's biography for the induction.

Years of perceived slights have aggravated Polley. He said history, assisted by Adler, has blurred important distinctions _ that Polley's technology came first and was widely accepted, and that today's infrared technology is the same essential approach Polley pioneered _ which support Polley's claim that he is the father of the remote.

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

Adler acknowledged those distinctions and agreed Polley is justified in feeling slighted. "It's something that makes me sad because it certainly wasn't my intention," Adler said. He said that, when he was sought to speak about the invention of the remote, he repeatedly requested Polley be included. Those requests typically went unheeded, he said.

"They would completely short-circuit him," Adler added. "That didn't make any sense to me."

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

Zenith corporate historian John Taylor maintains that the company, now owned by South Korean electronics manufacturer LG Electronics Inc., has "worked very hard to try and make sure (Polley) gets his due." Taylor noted that the company directed that both men accept an Emmy given to Zenith in 1996 for developing the remote.

"I don't know why Gene feels that he's been somewhat overshadowed in the last few years," Taylor said. "We think both men deserve credit. They're both towering figures in the history of consumer electronics."

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

Their statures are a little more stooped these days. Adler retired in 1982 with more than 180 patents and a Zenith technical excellence award named for him. He was vice president and director of research.

Polley also retired from Zenith in 1982 as an assistant division head. A widower, he lives with his daughter and memories of 18 patents in his name.

Until four years ago, Adler enjoyed downhill skiing. He still hikes with his wife, Ingrid. Apart from his consulting, which he acknowledged has slowed lately, Adler is reading "The Fabric of the Cosmos" by Brian Greene. He said he has "mixed feelings" about his place in consumer electronics history.

"People keep asking about it as if it was the only thing I've ever done," Adler said. "After a few years, it gets on your nerves a little."

Polley has served on the Lombard Zoning Board of Appeals for 32 years and drives a 1993 Buick with license plates POLLEY 2 to his thrice-weekly pool games with buddies at the Lombard Community Center and golf outings at the Village Links in Glen Ellyn. He still likes to tinker with mechanical devices. In the summer, he cuts his lawn on a riding mower and tends a tomato garden.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

While admitting to being a little bitter, Polley noted that he and Adler are cordial when they chat, the last time being in 2002 on the set of a History Channel taping of "Modern Marvels: Boys' Toys," which featured the story of the remote.

And, for all the influence they have had on television, their revolutionary work is now somewhat irrelevant to the two men. Polley's vision is fading, making it increasingly difficult to watch TV. Three months ago, looking for a way to reduce costs, he and his daughter cut their cable TV service.

Adler said he watches perhaps three hours of TV a week, almost all of it on one channel _ public television. He won't be watching the Super Bowl.

"No," he said. "I'm sorry, but those type of sports don't interest me. I don't see why people watch these."

___

(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

_____

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