Couch potatoes worldwide held a moment of silence this week for Eugene Polley, inventor of the world’s first wireless TV remote control – the Flash-Matic.
Colley’s invention is one of a handful of modern creations which can be said to have touched almost everyone in the world, and mostly for the better.
Working at America’s Zenith Radio Corp in the 1950s – now Zenith Electronics – Polley was tasked to create a remote control that didn’t have the trip-hazard wire of contemporary remote controls.
Polley’s Flash-Matic, introduced in 1955, was a simple gun-shaped torch that users could point at four photocells in each corner of the TV screen, to turn it off or on, change channel and mute the sound.
It was an instant hit, but a year later Zenith launched the Space Command, invented by Polley’s colleague, Robert Adler, who had also developed the first wired remote control.
Adler’s ‘clicker’ remote used high frequency sound waves, and became the dominant remote control technology until it was replaced by infra-red controllers in the 1980s.
Polley got a $1,000 bonus for his invention, but he was somewhat embittered by the overshadowing success of Adler’s device, and when Zenith received a technical Emmy for the remote control in 1997, they had to collect it together.
But the self-taught engineer was proud of his Flashmatic, always keeping one to hand to show visitors, although he owned a flat-screen TV and modern remote.
His career at Zenith saw him rise to assistant division chief for Zenth’s Mechanical Engineering Group, and he worked on radar, bomb fuses, push-button car radios and video disc technology in a 47-year career.
In 2009, he received the IEEE Consumer Electronics Award for contributions to the technology of the wireless remote control for television and other consumer electronic products.
Eugene Polley died on May 20, 2012, of natural causes at a Chicago hospital.