Urgent Matters

What the remote control begat in wireless communications (with related video)

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Eugene Polley died last month at the age of 96. This matters because more than a half century ago he invented the first wireless TV remote control.

Polley worked as an engineer at Zenith. The company had developed a wired device in 1950 called the Lazy Bones. Polley improved upon the concept five years later with a contraption dubbed the Flash-Matic, which used light beams to change the channels. The problem was that the receptors built into the sets could be fooled easily — even the setting sun could trigger channel changes. A year later Polley was upstaged by Zenith physicist Robert Adler and his Space Command remote, which relied on ultrasonic waves to do its work.

In all of the obituaries I read, Polley was hailed as the patron saint of couch potatoes. That made me smile, for a couple of reasons. First, when I was a kid, I was my family's TV remote; if I was in the room when my parents wanted the channel changed, the task fell to me. What a pain. Second, while I would not describe myself in terms as disparaging as "couch potato," I do change channels incessantly. In fact, I have gotten so good at this that I can watch several baseball games simultaneously, without missing very many pitches.

But wonderful as that capability is, it's not why I'm writing about Polley. Instead, after reading about him, I began to contemplate all of the things that we can control remotely today. For instance, we can start our engines from the comfort of our homes on cold winter days, so that the oil transforms from sludge to a free-flowing substance — as it was intended to be — before we depart. And if we remember after we depart that we forgot to turn off the lights, we can take care of that using our smartphones.

Here are a few more examples. The smart grid depends in large measure on the ability to remotely control all sorts of systems and devices; for example, rerouting electrical capacity and raising thermostats by a degree or two in order to avoid brownout or blackout. Tower base stations are monitored and controlled remotely, which saves technicians having to venture into rugged areas to service them — something they greatly appreciate any time of year, but especially in the dead of winter. In addition, portable radios are reprogrammed over the air, which saves having to take them out of service for extended periods.

Meanwhile, the military, law enforcement and border patrol are using remote-control drones to find bad guys and keep them from doing bad things. And NASA can give instructions to small rovers on a desolate, harsh planet that is at least 36 million miles away at any given moment.

The list could go on and on. But it all started with Polley who — like Hedy LaMarr before and Marty Cooper after — also changed the world.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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