Eugene Polley, the inventor of the wireless remote control, has died aged 96.
Polley was already 20 years into his career with Zenith Electronics when he came up with the Flash-Matic. Before then, users either had to get a set with a remote control on a wire or — and younger readers of a delicate disposition may have to brace themselves here — walk over to the set to change channel or adjust the volume.
The 1955 invention worked via a beam of light pointed at four sensors, one in each corner of the screen. Triggering a sensor would turn the set (or at least the picture and sound) on and off, or change the channel by simulating the manual tuning dial being turned clockwise or anti clockwise.
Creative as the Flash-Matic solution was, it didn’t always work smoothly, could be triggered by other lights, and sometimes even changed channel seemingly at random on sunny days.
Much of the credit for the modern remote was taken by fellow Zenith engineer Robert Adler, who created the Space Command device the following year. The control itself was mechanical, containing four aluminum rods that would be struck when the user pressed a button. The resulting high-frequency sounds were detected by a receiver on the TV set.
Although Adler’s design received the full support of Zenith and became the basis of most remote control technology for the next 25 years or so, it was eventually replaced by the infrared technology that most of us still use today. Infrared took over largely because it was better able to cope with more complex commands such as direct input of a channel number, which became more important in the cable era. While infrared works by frequency rather than physical position, the concept is closer to Polley’s original creation than the Adler system.
Polley began work at Zenith as a 19-year-old parts clerk in the stock room, eventually working his way up to an engineering role. His other work at the company included projects to create push-button car radios and laser discs.
(Picture credit: LG Electronics. Headline gag credit: Milton Jones.)