Danville Express

Column - March 9, 2007

Diablo Views: Bad invention? Not even remotely

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

We did not make a big enough deal last month over the passing of Dr. Robert Adler at the age of 93. He is the hero who is generally credited with inventing the wireless TV remote in 1956. It apparently took awhile for this wonderful invention to spread across the nation because I don't remember it being commonplace until television went cable.

Does anyone remember the dark and dreary days when we had to physically rise from our chairs and couches, walk across the room and turn the big ol' knob to change the channels? Of course we only had a handful of channels so the television surf was not exactly up. But there were still differences between channels 2, 4, 5 and 7 and reasons to change the channel. Channel changing was usually done at the end of a show as someone was en route to the kitchen or the bathroom. If no one otherwise needed to get up, well, that's when children came in handy.

In my house these days we use our remote to channel surf, sometimes never even making a choice, just surfing along while we sit and visit. We may pause in our conversation to watch a favorite scene from a movie or to give something new a chance but it's usually not for long. If we are truly watching a program, we will surf during the commercials. We certainly would not do this if we had to go over to the television to change the channels. Another great invention is the "last channel" button, which is especially effective for watching two sporting events simultaneously.

We also use the remote to mute commercials. As a person in an industry that makes its money from ads, I do not approve of ignoring advertising. But the ads on TV are often so noisy and obnoxious. Everyone really should advertise in newspapers instead.

My husband was way ahead of the game when it came to muting commercials. Many years before I had heard of a wireless remote - or a wireless anything - he rigged up long strings that were attached to the volume knob. Using this awkward device from the couch, he would turn the volume way down when a commercial came on and then back up again when the show was back on. It looked rather like he was fishing horizontally. To tell the truth it never worked all that well - it was very difficult to get the volume back up at to the correct level - so I was thankful when Dr. Adler's invention came along.

Apparently not everyone was thrilled about the invention of the TV remote, and some blamed Dr. Adler personally for creating the couch potato. He said that people sometimes asked him whether he felt guilty for causing folks to have unhealthy lifestyles. He answered that the idea was ridiculous, adding, "It seems reasonable and rational to control the TV from where you normally sit and watch television."

Others blamed Adler for taking credit for an invention that was actually the brainchild of many. He and fellow engineer Eugene Polley were given an Emmy Award by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for inventing the TV remote. Polley was credited with creating a wireless remote in 1955 that operated on photo cells, and Adler with introducing ultrasonics, or high-frequency sound, to make the device more efficient in 1956. They were both working at Zenith on a team of two dozen engineers given the mission of creating a remote device so folks would not have to move out of their chairs to operate the TV or worry about tripping over wires.

Adler was a prolific inventor, with 180 U.S. patents to his name. He apparently preferred getting credit for his other inventions, such as those used for space exploration and other scientific endeavors, but instead he became known as the man who made the couch potato possible. In my book, his passing deserves a moment of silence - hit the mute, dear. The only modern invention that even comes close is Caller ID.

-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.


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