Eugene Polley, inventor of the wireless TV remote, dies at 96
Polley worked for Zenith when he created the "Flash-Matic" remote
"It used a flashlight-like device to activate photocells on the television," Zenith says
The inventor of the TV remote, Eugene Polley, died on Sunday at 96.
After his death was announced on Tuesday, the Internet paused – get it? – to remember the man and the wireless television remote control, which ushered in the era of channel surfing and couch potatoes.
Some tributes were humorous. Others were fawning.
“Gush all you want about Facebook, Twitter and other recent tech innovations. I’d stack Polley and his TV remote against all of them,” wrote David Lazarus at LATimes.com. “After all, which would you be more willing to give up – Facebook or your remote? … Thought so.”
Polley, who died of “natural causes,” according to a news release, invented Zenith’s “Flash-Matic” wireless remote control, which was introduced in 1955 and was heralded as the first of its kind. “It used a flashlight-like device to activate photocells on the television set to change channels,” the Zenith news release says.
In the 1950s, the mechanics of using a remote were a little clunky:
“The viewer used a highly directional flashlight to activate the four control functions, which turned the picture and sound on and off and changed channels by turning the tuner dial clockwise and counterclockwise,” Zenith says.
Rosa Golijan from MSNBC writes that eccentricities always have been part of the remote control and its odd history:
“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.’ “
And an advertisement from that era underscores just how new this invention was.
“A flash of magic light from across the room (no wires, no cords) turns set on, off or changes channels,” one ad says, “and you remain in your easy chair!”
Born in Chicago, Polley had a long career as an engineer at Zenith, where he worked his way up from the stockroom. His inventions, mostly in the field of television, earned 18 U.S. patents.
Technology analysts, commentators and remote users are using the occasion of Polley’s death to celebrate his invention and tease a bit about its legacy.
“Thanks for the belly Eugene,” someone wrote on the tech blog Gizmodo’s Facebook page. “Just kidding. Great invention.”
Others chose to focus on the way Polley, who won a Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for his creation, changed the world with the invention.
The TV remote was the precursor to interactive entertainment – and it’s part of the reason we’re able to navigate digital content so freely, says The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal.
“The new device meant people could change channels quickly and easily from the comfort of their sectionals, and that affordance meant that television stations could not continue to sell advertising or deliver programming the way that they had before when it was more difficult to change the channel,” he writes. “I do not think it is an accident that we started channel surfing (1986) before we started surfing the Web.”
As if taking a cue from that thought, one Twitter user wrote:
“R.I.P. Eugene Polley, inventor of the TV remote control. Please honor the man by reading this tweet for at least 5 seconds before scrolling.”
Gizmodo also muses on the post-remote world:
“Cordless control allowed audiences a vastly new experience of consuming television: For the first time ever, they could switch programs without getting up to turn the dial. No longer were programs endured simply because they were too lazy to get up off the couch. Commercials could be avoided by switching channels, or muted, with just the press of a button. ‘Channel surfing’ become a thing.”
Who owns the remote in your home, and why? Tell us about your relationship with TV remotes in the comments section.