Eugene J. Polley, engineer who invented the first wireless TV remote control, dies at 96

Eugene J. Polley, an electronics engineer who revolutionized American leisure by inventing the first wireless TV remote control, a gadget that also featured the first mute function to silence the more obnoxious sounds of television, died May 20 at a hospital in Downers Grove, Ill. He was 96.

He had pneumonia, said his son Eugene J. Polley Jr.

Mr. Polley lived his entire life in the Chicago area, where he worked for Zenith Electronics for 47 years. Hired as a stock boy during the Depression, he eventually became an engineer with 18 patents to his credit.

His most important innovation was the Flash-Matic, a ray-gun remote control first sold in 1955 just as television sets were becoming commonplace in American households. Within decades, a television could be found in practically every home — and in some cases in every room. Nearly every set had a remote to go with it.

“It makes me think maybe my life wasn’t wasted,” Mr. Polley once told the Baltimore Sun. “Maybe I did something for humanity — like the guy who invented the flush toilet.”


Eugene J. Polley, who invented the first wireless TV remote control, died May 20 at age 96. (AP)

Mr. Polley’s invention was not the first TV remote control. In 1950, Zenith released the Lazy Bones, a device tethered to the television by a long cord. The Lazy Bones allowed viewers to change channels and turn the set on and off from their seats, but the cord proved dangerous and inelegant.

Zenith’s founder, Eugene F. McDonald Jr., demanded something better. Instead of a wire, Mr. Polley’s device used a light beam to send signals to four receptors in the corners of the TV set. The top corners received signals to change channels; the bottom corners received signals to mute or turn off the set.

“Absolutely harmless to humans!” Flash-Matic advertisements promised. “You can even shut off annoying commercials while the picture remains on the screen.”

The device was an extravagance, adding $100 to the cost of a television that sold for $500 in 1955, according to John I. Taylor, a Zenith vice president and unofficial historian. The technology was also imperfect. The TV receptors sometimes mistook changes in light, including sunsets, for commands.

Mr. Polley’s Flash-Matic sold about 30,000 units before it was supplanted in 1956 by the Space Command, a remote control invented by Zenith physicist Robert Adler. That device used tiny hammers to strike metal rods, sending commands by ultrasonic wave. It emitted an audible clicking noise, giving rise to the moniker “clicker,” and became the industry standard for a quarter-century. (Modern remote controls use infrared technology.)

Adler, who died in 2007, was often called the “father of the remote control” — a point that caused Mr. Polley some bitterness. In 1997, the men were awarded an Emmy for their innovations. In 1999, Sports Illustrated named them its “Men of the Millennium.”

They were sometimes blamed for contributing to obesity and sparking marital spats. Less often was it noted that their devices improved the lives of the disabled and the elderly.


An ad for the Zenith Flash-Matic, invented by Eugene J. Polley. The wireless remote control added $100 to the cost of a $500 television set in 1955. (AP)

Eugene Theodore Polley was born Nov. 29, 1915, in Chicago. He took Joseph as his Catholic confirmation name and thereafter used “J.” as his middle initial.

Mr. Polley was raised mainly by his mother after his father, a bootlegger, left the family. In 1935, in an effort to help his mother weather the Depression, Mr. Polley got his first job with the company then known as the Zenith Radio Corp.

During World War II, he worked on government contracts related to radar. Other assignments included work on push-button radios for cars and a forerunner of the DVD.

His wife of 34 years, Blanche Wiley Polley, died in 1976. A daughter, Joan Polley, died in 2008. Survivors include his son, Eugene J. Polley Jr. of San Diego; and one grandson.

Mr. Polley, who had received a $1,000 bonus for his invention, expressed some ambivalence about what it had wrought.

“Everything has to be done remotely now or forget it,” he once told the Palm Beach Post. “Nobody wants to get off their fat and flabby to control these electronic devices.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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