Been and Gone: Farewell to 'Mama Bird' and the inventor of the TV remote control
- 6 June 2012
- From the section Magazine
Our regular column covering the passing of significant - but lesser-reported - people of the past month.
The phrase "turbulent priest" used by Henry II about Thomas A Becket, could well have been applied to Canon Eric James . A charismatic and sometimes outspoken preacher he became one of the best-known voices on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day. He was one of the prime movers behind the Church of England's 1985 report, Faith in the City, which blamed the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher for increasing inner-city deprivation and led to the setting-up of the Church Urban Fund to tackle poverty. He never tried to hide his radical views and his outspokenness probably prevented him rising higher in the Church. Despite his anti-establishment rhetoric he was appointed as one of the Queen's chaplains, although this did not prevent him denouncing the concept of a hereditary monarchy. It was while wearing the scarlet robes of his royal appointment that he chose to declare his homosexuality on a TV programme.
The outline for the iconic Raleigh Chopper cycle was actually drawn on the back of an envelope. Raleigh's chief designer Alan Oakley had taken a trip to the United States in search of inspiration and noticed that American children were customising their cycles to resemble the "chopped" Harley-Davidsons, beloved of US motorcycle gangs. On the flight home he sketched out the design for the new bike on the only piece of paper he had to hand. With its different-sized wheels, huge saddle and a gear handle resembling that found in a car, it faced opposition from safety experts but struck a chord with a generation of youngsters, particularly as it was marketed in a stunning range of bright colours. The release of the film, Easy Rider, helped to increase sales despite the fact that the majority of Raleigh's target market would have been too young to watch it.
Evelyn Johnson was reputed to have clocked more flying hours and trained more pilots than any other person in the world. The sight of a biplane circling over her home town in Tennessee in 1944 inspired her to take her first flying lesson and within three years, she had qualified as an instructor. During the following five decades she was estimated to have trained more than 5,000 pilots and logged 57,600 flying hours, the equivalent of more than six years in the air. By the end of the 1950s she was appointed as a pilot examiner by the Civil Aeronautics Administration. Not content with fixed wing aircraft she learned to fly helicopters before qualifying as a helicopter flight instructor and also piloted jet aircraft. Her flying career ended when, at the age of 94, she lost a leg in a car crash and could no longer pass a medical.
Couch potatoes all over the world owe a debt of gratitude to Eugene Polley , who developed the first TV wireless remote control. In the mid-1950s he was working as an engineer for Zenith, a US TV manufacturer which had already developed a remote control connected to the TV by a cable. Polley came up with a device containing a light transmitter that activated a photo-electric cell on the TV. The company proudly marketed the device as "absolutely harmless to humans". The only drawback of the primitive device was that any light source in the room, including sunlight, could also change channels on the TV. Polley had worked on early versions of radar during World War II before joining Zenith. His remote control was quickly superseded by more efficient versions but he went on to help develop the push-button car radio and the video disk, a forerunner of the DVD.
Another TV pioneer was Colin McIntyre , the first editor of the BBC's Ceefax service when it launched in 1974. Engineers had been attempting to find ways to put text on a TV screen to provide subtitles for people who were hard of hearing. They realised that they could use the spare lines on an analogue TV signal to put full pages of text onto the screen. When the service started, McIntyre updated all 24 original pages on his own but as he worked conventional office hours, there were no updates during the evenings and weekends. Initial take-up was slow because of the cost of the decoders needed in the sets but eventually every new TV could receive it. In the days before the internet this was the only way that viewers could get instant news when they wanted it, albeit while having to wait for individual pages to come up.
It was while working as the BBC's news organiser in New York that Ron Onions , a long-serving BBC journalist, became a fan of the tabloid style of radio news bulletin common on US stations. Faced with the prospect of a desk job on his return to the UK, Onions quit the BBC and went to work at the newly launched commercial station, Capital Radio. He moved on to LBC, the talk station that, at the time, was struggling to make an impact and became the architect of Independent Radio News. He recruited a group of bright young journalists whose news was delivered in three-minute bulletins and at a snappy pace which was eventually adopted by his longer-established rivals. IRN came of age during the Falklands War when Onions persuaded a sceptical Foreign Office to allow one of his reporters to be on the front line.
Among others who died in May were: