By Rosa Golijan
If it weren’t for Eugene J. Polley, flipping TV channels would be an exhausting and tedious undertaking. Polley, after all, invented the world’s first wireless TV remote. He died of natural causes on Sunday, at the age of 96.
According to a press release put out by Zenith — the company with which Polley started his 47-year engineering career in 1935 — the innovator earned 18 U.S. patents for his inventions, which include the “Flash-matic” remote control. This device, introduced in 1955, “used a flashlight-like device to activate photo cells on the television set to change channels.”
Because the remote shined visible light, TVs could be confused by other light sources. In spite of its quirkiness, the Flash-matic was a revolution, and the reason Polley was bestowed with humorous titles ranging from “the founding father of the couch potato” to “the czar of zapping” to “the beach boy of channel surfing.”
The Flash-Matic was followed by the Space Command — a “next-generation wireless TV remote based on ultrasonic technology” — which was developed by the late Dr. Robert Adler, a fellow Zenith engineer who built upon Polley’s invention. Of course, by the time the 1980s came around, ultrasonic remotes had given way to infrared (or IR) remotes. The most recent ones use radio frequency, so you don’t have to point them directly at anything.
Wireless remote controls, which were a luxury in their early days, are now a standard accompaniment to any TV, set-top box, DVD player, DVR, stereo, and just about any other home entertainment device you might encounter. All because of the work tracing back to one Eugene J. Polley.
So pause for a moment the next time you sit on the couch, idly surfing channels on a TV that’s 8 feet away, and think of the brilliant engineer who made your exquisite laziness possible.
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