Vale: Eugene Polley

Where would we be without Eugene Polley -the man who invented the TV remote control?

Where would we be without Eugene Polley -the man who invented the TV remote control?

Mr. Polley has died in Illinois aged 96.

As the NY Times tells us, his death was announced by the Zenith Electronics Corporation, where Mr. Polley began his career in the stockroom before rising through the engineering ranks to invent the device, called the Flash-Matic, in 1955.

“Just think!,” an advertisement proclaimed, “Without budging from your easy chair you can turn your new Zenith Flash-Matic set on, off, or change channels. You can even shut off annoying commercials while the picture remains on the screen.”

The Flash-Matic remote, which worked like a flashlight, was shaped like a snub-nosed revolver. The shape was a considered choice on Mr. Polley’s part, as he explained in 2000, letting viewers in the age of ubiquitous TV westerns “shoot out” commercials.

The device proved popular: during its first and only year of existence, 30,000 Flash-Matic sets were sold.

For his invention, Mr. Polley received a thousand-dollar bonus.

But there were difficulties. Because the system was light-activated, sunlight hitting the TV screen could cause the channels to change in spontaneous roulette. Viewers also had trouble remembering which corner of the screen controlled which function.

His device was soon supplanted by a more efficient, more enduring and far better-selling one, developed by a Zenith colleague, Robert Adler.

Mr. Adler improved Mr. Polley’s device by making it responsive to sound instead of light. His remote, called Space Command, used inaudible, high-frequency sound waves to control the set. It, too, had problems — it could be set off by the sound of jangling keys or rattling coins — but was deemed enough of an improvement on its predecessor to be brought to market in 1956.

From that year to the early 1980s, when infrared remotes became standard, more than nine million sets controlled by Space Command technology were sold.

With other colleagues, Mr. Adler and Mr. Polley represented Zenith when it was given a special Emmy Award in 1997 for its development of wireless remotes.

Mr. Adler died in 2007. Zenith has said publicly that it considers him and Mr. Polley the joint inventors of the device.

Mr. Polley begged to differ.

“A father has to be present at conception,” he said in a 2002 interview. “And if you’re not, you’re not that father.”

5 Responses

  1. We all owe him a lot of thanks, I reckon. What a fantastic invention and what I wouldn’t give to have a remote shaped like a revolver. What fun to point that at the TV!!!!

  2. The first remote I remember using was on the first VCR the family bought, top loading and yes a corded remote, that didn’t quite reach as far as you wanted. How far we have come, I have 4 different remotes sitting next to me on the desk right now, TV, DVR, STB and Austar.

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