They Put Zap On The Map Our Men of the Millennium? The intrepid inventors of the sports fan's most indispensable accessory

December 13, 1999

"For many people, it's the most-used object in everyday life,"
says 84-year-old inventor Gene Polley, 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 zapper--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, Elvis-like, 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 dumbed-down 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
flippin' 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.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)