September 02, 1996 12:00 PM

FARMING. THE WHEEL. THE TV REmote control. Of the three great inventions that changed the nature of human life on earth, we can name, with certainty, the creator of only one: Dr. Robert Adler, 82, of Glenview, Ill., who made couch potatohood possible.

It has been 40 years since Adler created the remote, driving a wedge between the sexes and allowing an overweight nation to channel-surf through life on its Homer Simpson-ish duff. Carping about the remote, he says, “is like saying that, rather than having a light switch at the door, you should have to climb a ladder and turn the switch on the lamp itself.”

Adler, who has two TVs but only one working remote, a primitive 20-year-old model, doesn’t have much use for his brainchild. He watches only about an hour of TV a week and does not have cable. “I just never developed a habit of turning on the set,” he says.

Adler was associate director of research at the Zenith Electronics Corp. four decades ago when Eugene F. McDonald Jr., the company’s crusty founder, ordered his engineers to create a device to tune out commercials. Adler came up with the idea of beaming high-frequency ultrasonic waves at a microphone in the TV. The Space Commander 400, quickly dubbed the clicker because of the distinctive noise it made, was born and began appearing in stores in the fall of 1956. The clicker didn’t immediately click with the public, however, largely because it added a hefty $100 to the cost of a TV. In fact, it wasn’t until 1985 that there were more TVs with remotes than without.

The patent for the Space Commander 400 belongs to Zenith, but Adler says he was well rewarded. Retired from full-time employment since 1982, he works as a consultant, and he’s still modest about his invention. “Next to the guy who discovered fire,” he says, “it’s really not that big a deal.”

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