Inventor of the wireless TV remote dies at 96

Should Eugene Polley be blamed for the country's millions of couch potatoes? As the inventor of the world’s first wireless TV remote, he could be called that. Now, if only Polley had invented a way to find mine.

Polley has died at age 96 at a hospital in Downers Grove, Ill. He started his 47-year career at Zenith in 1935, and acquired 18 U.S. patents for his inventions, including the “Flash-matic” remote control (the precursor to the multi-button, infrared contraption we have now). Introduced in 1955, it “used a flashlight-like device to activate photo cells on the television set to change channels.”

Because the first remotes shined visible light at TV sets, they could become confused by other light sources. In spite of that, 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.

By the 1980s, ultrasonic remotes had given way to infrared (or IR) remotes. The most recent ones use radio frequencies, so users 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 and stereo. All because of the engineering work tracing back to Eugene J. Polley’s first zapper.