Inventor who became acclaimed as the 'patron saint of couch potatoes' for his creation of the wireless remote control
EUGENE Polley, who died last Sunday aged 96, was acclaimed the patron saint of couch potatoes for inventing the wireless television remote control in 1955.
Originally considered a luxury for sofa-bound viewers, Polley's invention became more of an electronic essential with the advent of hundreds of channels and changing viewing technologies.
In the pre-Polley era, viewers wanting to switch channels had to get up, walk over to the television set and turn a dial. Then came Lazy Bones, the first TV remote, which had one major drawback: a cable that snaked across the room from the handset to the TV.
Polley's gadget, a green hand-held remote shaped like a ray gun with a red trigger -- called a Flash-Matic -- offered remote wireless tuning by aiming the contraption at the screen from anywhere in the room.
Zenith, the company Polley worked for, promised "TV miracles" with its "flash tuner" that was "Absolutely harmless to humans!" "You can even shut off annoying commercials," boasted its advertisement, "while the picture remains on the screen."
Polley's Flash-Matic technology, crude by modern standards, involved pointing a visible beam of light at photo cells in each corner of the television screen. The viewer used a highly directional flashlight to turn the picture and sound on or off, or to change the channel in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction.
"The flush toilet may have been the most civilised invention ever devised," Polley proudly pointed out in 2002, "but the remote control is the next most important. It's almost as important as sex."
His concepts provided the foundation of wireless remote technologies that followed. Today's infrared remotes use a low-frequency light beam detected by a receiver in the television set, DVD player and other devices.
Eugene Theodore Polley was born on November 29, 1915 in Chicago. In 1935 he was taken on as a stock boy by Zenith Electronics, and during the war worked on bomb fuses and ship-detecting radar for the US Department of Defence.
Inventing the TV remote earned him a $1,000 bonus from Zenith, but also the feeling that he was being denied his footnote in American cultural history by his fellow company engineer, Robert Adler, whose own wireless remote, known as the Space Command, and launched about a year after Polley's Flash-Matic, became much more popular.
Although it had sold about 30,000 units when Adler's gadget was launched, Polley's Flash-Matic had not proved glitch-free. Because the system was light-activated, sunlight hitting the television screen could cause the channels to change of their own accord. Viewers also had trouble remembering which corner of the screen controlled which function. When the batteries in the remote started to run down, users thought the television was malfunctioning. Adler's ultrasound "clicker", on the other hand, had small hammers that struck rods to produce a high-frequency sound that sent signals to the television.
But Adler's technology was no less flawed. Jingling keys, rattling coins or even the tags on the collars of passing dogs could cause his system to malfunction. It was also expensive, adding $100 to the cost of a television set.
Those drawbacks, however, were considered less obvious than the problems with the Flash-Matic, and Zenith decided to promote Adler's ultrasonic technology rather than Polley's light-activated system.
Polley also worked on the push-button car radio and contributed to the development of the video disk, a forerunner of today's DVD. He later managed Zenith's video recording and advanced mechanical design groups, eventually becoming assistant divisional head of Zenith's mechanical engineering group.
Adler died in 2007.
Eugene Polley's wife, Blanche, and their daughter predeceased him, and he is survived by their son.