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TV Remote Inventor Dies

Eugene Polley

Eugene Polley, an inventor whose best-known creation has fostered blissful sloth, caused decades of domestic discord and forever altered the way consumers watch television, died on Sunday in Downers Grove, Ill. Mr. Polley, the inventor of the wireless television remote control, was 96.

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.

An ad for Zenith’s Flash-Matic. Zenith sold 30,000 televisions with the remote control.

“Just think!,” an advertisement breathlessly proclaimed that year. “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.

Flash-Matic made the TV audience less captive, though also less active. For the first time, viewers could comfortably exercise dominion over sound and image without simultaneously exercising the body on the march between couch and dial.

B&W TV w/ Dials

(The “dial” was a round thing with numbers on it — all the way up to 13 — by which viewers changed the channel through the direct application of fingers and wrist. One did not so much surf channels in those days as ride their gentle swells with all due deliberateness.)

As Mr. Polley, by then 86, proudly told an interviewer in 2002: “The flush toilet may have been the most civilized invention ever devised, but the remote control is the next most important. It’s almost as important as sex.”

For his invention, Mr. Polley received a thousand-dollar bonus. But his device was soon supplanted by a more efficient, more enduring and far better-selling one, developed by a Zenith colleague, Robert Adler.

News accounts over the years have often described Mr. Adler erroneously as the TV remote’s sole inventor. Mr. Polley, a plain-spoken man who seemed to avail himself of his own internal mute button only rarely, was largely relegated to the margins of history, a condition that rankled.

“Not only did I not get credit for doing anything,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 2006, “I got a kick in the rear end.”

BIOGRAPHY

Eugene Theodore Polley was born in Chicago on Nov. 29, 1915. (He disliked the name Theodore and adopted his confirmation name, Joseph, as his middle name.) His father, a bootlegger, abandoned the family when Gene was about 10.

A Zenith Radio

The young Mr. Polley studied at the City Colleges of Chicago and the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology), but lacked the money to complete a degree. At 20 he joined the Zenith Radio Company, as it was then known, as a stock boy earning 40 cents an hour.

Mechanically adept, he worked his way into the engineering department. During World War II Mr. Polley, on loan from Zenith, worked for the United States military on bomb fuses and ship-detecting radar.

After the war, as TV sets began to colonize American homes, Zenith’s president, Eugene F. McDonald, faced a quandary. Mr. McDonald, who held a utopian view of the new medium, was certain that viewers would revolt en masse against television commercials, by his lights a growing scourge.

But until that halcyon day arrived, Mr. McDonald knew, he needed to offer consumers a stopgap, and he enlisted the company’s engineers to make it.

Ad of Lazybones remote

The first TV remote, called Lazy Bones, was introduced by Zenith in 1950. It had one profound drawback, however: a cable snaking from the remote to the set, over which users were inclined to trip.

Mr. McDonald enlisted Mr. Polley to build a wireless remote, and the Flash-Matic was born. The hand-held device emitted a visible beam of light, which consumers could point at a compatible TV set.

The new, purpose-built sets had a photo cell embedded in each corner of the screen; the viewer activated the cell by “shooting” it with the remote. One cell changed the channel up, another changed the channel down, a third muted the sound, and the fourth turned the set on and off.

A 1955 Flash-matic remote

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

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.

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.

A Space Command Remote

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

Mr. Polley, a longtime resident of Lombard, Ill., had lived most recently in Glen Ellyn, Ill. He is survived by a son, Eugene Jr., and a grandson. His wife, the former Blanche Wiley, died before him, as did a daughter, Joan Polley.

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.”

From one lazybones who spend a lot of time in front of the tv, Thank you Mr. Polley. I’d be much more active if it were not for you.

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