Remotely famousEugene Polley

An engineer, Polley couldn’t afford to finish school, and went to work as a stockroom boy at Zenith Radio Co. before being promoted again and again, finally to the company’s engineering department. There, in 1955, he invented something to make Zenith’s televisions more convenient: the “Flash-Matic”. The device had a pistol-like grip so that viewers could “shoot out” obnoxious commercials. It was the first wireless remote control for TVs, and Zenith quickly sold 30,000 Flash-Matic sets. It was literally a flashlight device: photo receptors mounted on each corner of the set allowed viewers to turn it on or off, change channels up or down, or mute/unmute the sound, by shining the beam in the appropriate corner. “The flush toilet may have been the most civilized invention ever devised,” Polley said years later, “but the remote control is the next most important. It’s almost as important as sex.”

The light-activation system was problematic, however, as sun shining on the TV could change the channel, so another Zenith engineer, Robert Adler, came out with version 2 in 1956, the “Space Command” remote, which used high-pitched sounds to perform the same functions. (That had its own limitations: jingling keys could change the channel.) That model sold even better — eventually, 9 million sets — and Zenith considered the men co-inventors of the remote control; they shared a 1997 technical Emmy award for their work. But, Polley said, “A father has to be present at conception. And if you’re not, you’re not that father.” Adler, who died in 2007 at 93, agreed that Polley deserved more credit. Polley went on to work on video recording devices, and helped develop the video disk. He retired from Zenith in 1982, after 47 years on the job. He died May 20, at 96.

Author’s Note: the infrared remote, which suffered from much fewer interference problems than light- or sound-based devices, was invented in Canada in 1980; by 1985 a million had been sold, even though it cost C$190. In 1987, the first programmable “universal” infrared remote control, which can “learn” commands and operate multiple devices, was invented by Apple Computer co-founder (and This is True reader) Steve Wozniak.

From This is True for 27 May 2012