Pause For Thought by Nigel Roth


A few weeks ago I was reminded, on the anniversary of his death, of an American inventor called Eugene Polley. He died at ninety-six years of age, a fabulous lifespan and about twenty years longer than any of us can expect to live on this planet.

Polley was born the same year Erik Weisz was escaping straightjackets with his new monika, Harry Houdini. A Chicagoan who never graduated college, he has a lot to answer for, particularly at such a sedentary time in our evolution.

Because of Polley’s continuous fascination with the properties of light, Americans probably walk five or so miles less each week, or the distance from his birthplace to the site of Houdini's untimely death in Detroit, over the course of a year. Though he didn’t shine at his studies, Polley made up for that by tinkering away until he had the technological recipe for putting us off our stride.

He’s not with us anymore, of course, so I can’t ask him to confirm, but I bet he still walked each week, racking up the miles on his mad-scientist pegs. Maybe he’s walking now, striding forever down North Michigan, jangling gold coins in his satin pockets.

Because of this man’s sharp-shooting intellect and his uncanny knack of promoting localised sedentism, nearly half of all Americans have become obese. I don’t know what Polley was thinking, but he was probably in-league with the chip makers, and the frozen pizza companies, and the cookie producers, and the people who make those strange plastic lap-tray contraptions they use in Ohio.

Because of this man’s brilliant ability to think outside of everyone else, the US has nearly thirty-five million citizens with Type-2 diabetes. Not in any way a sweet number. Did Polley think all this through while he swanned around with his eighteen patents in his Salvatore Ferragamos?

Probably not, and he probably didn’t wear Ferragamos, but the vast majority of the thirty-five million certainly don’t either; they struggle to pay the $17,000 in medical costs they need each year to guarantee existence, and their feet are probably too sore anyway. While Polley was pinching himself to see if all this success was real, the sad parallel of people pricking themselves regularly to see if life was in their forecast is not lost here.

Because of this man and his innovative work with photocells, people are arthritic to the bone. Fifty-five million Americans struggle with this debilitating condition, and he didn’t help one bit. He could have, by encouraging exercise to help ease the pain and stiffness. But no, he just laughed at us while he danced the tango with his 132-year-old grandmother.

Because of this man and his smarty-pants invention, Americans are completely average in their educational achievements. In a recent comparison, the US ranked 14th out of thirty-four countries for reading skills, 17th for science, and a woeful 25th for mathematics. If Polley had been born twenty years earlier, he would never have had the education he needed to influence the course of a nation's development the way he did. Could never happen, right?

Because of this man’s ability to combine technology with everyday life, America has lost the ability to focus on anything for any amount of time. If you are still reading this, you’re probably in a minority, and not one of the many Americans who have the attention span of a gazebo. Polley doesn’t seem to have suffered from this. He could probably focus all night on his inventions, and didn’t have to deal with the products of his work; he left that to the masses.

Polley was without doubt the couch-potato creator, the high lord of the recliner, and a denizen of plop. He and his brilliance returned to the ether a few years ago, but he left America poorer than he could ever have imagined.

Millions of Americans would have a fair complaint against him. He had arguably more effect on us than the eons of human development we experienced from early primates to anatomically-modern humans, and in many cases back again. .

I know it’s not really all Polley’s fault, but imagine if we could just rewind him back to 1955, put on pause any chance he had of changing us so radically, and maybe fast-forward ourselves into a much healthier space using, of course, his greatest and worst gift to the world to do it – the remote control.

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