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technological inventions

Inventive America

EASY CONTROL: (Clockwise from right) Polley died last week aged 96;a 1955 ad for the remote;a Zenith 'Flash-Matic', the first wireless TV remote control

Will Rogers, the folksy American social commentator and wiseacre, once quipped that the United States "is a nation that conceives many odd inventions for getting somewhere but it can think of nothing to do once it gets there". He said this in 1935, some two decades before Eugene Polley, who died this week at 96, invented the remote control, a device that was meant to electronically and wirelessly manipulate changes, in the first instance to switch channels and other settings on a television without separating our fundament from the couch.

In that sense, the remote control arguably heads the list of mankind's technological inventions such as the airplane, the automobile and the computer, which, as one critic carped, "says little about his intelligence, but speaks volumes about his laziness".

Indeed, the first "remote" intended to control a television, developed by Zenith Radio Corporation in 1950, predated Folley's folly by five years, and was called "Lazy Bones". It was connected to the television by a wire, so was only notionally remote. Folley advanced the idea by getting a photoelectric cell to respond to a beam of light, thus "wirelessing" the remote. The "Flash-Matic", as he called it (no, not "Lazier Bones" ) had to be pointed very precisely at the television to effect changes, and would often respond to other sources of light, driving both television and its viewer to distraction.

Remotes have come a long way - literally - since then. But not even the arrival of the universal, all-inone remote has precluded the profusion of individual remotes in our homes. Come on, confess, you still have separate remotes for the television, the set-top box, the DVD player and the CD player, don't you? We now have remotes for refrigerators, garages, cars and even for TVs and CD players which are an arm's length inside the car, using the spurious excuse that you don't want take your eyes off the road. A remote is never too far away from us, and if it is, we can always get a remote to locate a lost remote. And if you haven't the remotest idea which remote works with which contraption, you are not remotely alone.

No country in the world has put more gizmos, remotes included, in our hands and in our homes than the United States although we might argue till the lights go out and the cows come home about their usefulness or otherwise. Science, scientific temper and scientific inquiry might have originated elsewhere in the world, but when it comes to inventions and innovations, give it up to the United States folks.

The point was driven home some years back - and reminded more recently in a discussion on Facebook (itself an American contribution, like Google and iPad) - when your correspondent dropped by at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. The lab itself is named after Alexander Graham Bell, a Canadian who invented the telephone (one of the few inventions that Americans were trumped on), but its forbear is AT&T.

It is here, in this crucible of American ingenuity, that most technologies you see in your living room were invented - from the transistor that is at the heart of almost every electronic device in your home to the first fax and modem, operating systems and programming languages, broadband and data networking, touch tone and cellphone. "The average home, " crows this headquarters to more than 30, 000 patents, "contains at least 25 products that can trace their roots back to Bell Labs innovations. "

While a majority of your living room technologies came from Bell Labs, Xerox PARC and similar temples of American innovation, the nation's ingenuity was spread far and wide, and it brought us inventions great and small, famous and fantastic. From toilet paper to nuclear weapons, the joke goes, America invented something for every ass, some to wipe and some to wipe-out. From the sextant (Philadelphia optician Thomas Godfrey's invention, which, had it been in the hands of Columbus, might have resulted in sparing the Native Americans and wiping us Indians out instead) to James Colt's revolving barrel firearm (hence revolver) that enabled Texan forces to defeat the Mexicans, American inventions changed history and geography. Some, like the remote control and video games, subverted lifestyle and social habits. More domestic discord, academic slippage and workplace regression have been engendered by these two inventions than any other. But the country that invented the bubble gum also conceived the squeezable ketchup bottle, but for which (with the old glass bottle), the versifier Ogden Nash wrote, "First a little/Then a lottle. " Great American inventions, from airplanes to television, from credit card to barcode, from digital camera to personal computer, we know well. They changed the world. But it is these little beauties, the stuff of everyday life, from rubber bands to ball point pens, from post-it notes to cellophane tape, from windshield wipers to wrinkle-free cotton, from superglue to barbed wire, from zippers to Velcro, many of which were ideated elsewhere but came to fruition (and patent) in the United States, that truly sealed its reputation as the ground zero of innovation and design, for gadgetry and gizmos. Many of these inventors are honoured at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, which is as dear to gearheads as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a few miles north in Cleveland, is to music groupies. So necessity may be the mother of invention, but Uncle Sam can lay a fair claim to paternity. Now if only he could solve the world's problems with that remote control...

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