Sunday, February 18, 2007

Two Pop Culture Figures Pass On

Two figures who played a pivotal role in American pop culture recently died. I doubt very many people have heard of the first, although he had an important role in modern American life. The second was somewhat more more famous.

Robert Adler, inventor of the first practical, wireless remote control for television sets died Thursday, February 15 at the age of 93.

Adler was born in Vienna, Austria on December 4, 1913. After receiving his PhD at the University of Vienna in 1937, he migrated to the United States. He joined the research division of Zenith Electronics in 1941. During World War II he did work on high frequency magnetostrictive oscillators and electromechanical filters in communications equipment for the military.

After the war, among Adler's earliest inventions was the gated beam vacuum tube. The tube simplified the sound systems of early television sets and thus reduced sound interference. In 1958 Adler would develop the electron beam parametric amplifier, which was for its time the best and most practical amplifier for UHF (Ultra High Frequency) signals.

But Adler's lasting contribution to American culture would be the development of the ultrasonic television remote control, which was first sold in 1956. Zenith had introduced the first television remote in 1950, a device called Lazy Bones which was attached to the TV set by a cable. Lazy Bones proved not to be very popular because the cable made it unwieldy. The first wireless remote was developed by Eugene Polley in 1955. The Flash-matic operated on photocells. The disadvantage of the Flash-matic is that it did not function well in open sunlight, which could cause one's television set to start randomly changing channels. Adler then developed the Space Command remote control, which operated on high frequency sound to change channels on television sets. Alder's ultrasonic remote control proved to be such a success that it would be the industry standard until the Eighties, when infrared remote controls made Adler's ultrasonic obsolete.

In all, Adler held over 180 different patents for various inventions. His most recent was one for touch screen technology, just published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office this February 1. The technology Adler developed would have a lasting impact, on everything from modern day TV screens to cell phones to computer touch screens.

The other important pop culture figure to pass on also died on Thursday. Ray Evans, who most often collaborated with Jay Livingston, was an Oscar winning composer and songwriter. He was 92 years old.

Evans was born in Salamanca, New York on February 4, 1915. He earned his degree in music at the University of Pennsylvania. It was there that he met Jay Livingston. Together they formed a dance band. After the two graduated, they set out on their careers as songwriters. Evans' earliest work was for the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson, although soon Hollywood soon became Livingston and Evans' ticket to fame and fortune.

Evans' first song for a film was "Times a-Wastin'" for Private Snuffy Smith in 1942. Often in conjunction with Jay Livingston, Evans went onto write many standards for the movies. Among them were "Buttons and Bows" (for the classic Bob Hope film The Palefale), "Que Sera, Sera" (Doris Day's signature tune, first sung in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much), "Silver Bells" (the Yuletide standard from The Lemon Drop Kid, "Mona Lisa" (from Captain Carey U.S.A.), and "Tammy" for Tammy and the Bachelor.

Ray Evans not only wrote songs for the movies, but he also composed some of the most famous TV themes of all time. With Jay Livingston he composed the themes for Mr. Ed and Bonanza (both often ranked among the greatest theme songs of all time).

Along with his parter Jay Livinston, Ray Evans was among the greatest composers of film and television. Indeed, he wrote many of my favourite songs ("Buttons and Bows," "Silver Bells," "Que Sera, Sera"....) and two of my favourite TV themes (you can't beat either the Mr. Ed theme or the Bonanza theme). I am then greatly saddened by his passing.

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