Eugene J. Polley, who invented the first wireless remote control for television has died. In 1955, when it went on sale, the device was considered dangerously disruptive to the young TV industry.
Polley is often called the Father of the Remote Control for his invention of the “Flash-Matic,” an expensive but futuristic invention that gave viewers a way to change channels on their black-and-white TV sets without having to move.
At the time, the Zenith Radio Corp. product was considered disruptive to the TV industry because it could be used to mute the audio on commercials. Zenith made this feature a key point in its advertising: “You can also shut off long, annoying commercials while picture stays on screen!” (See one of Zenith’s ads, below.)
Additionally, programming executives disliked the effect it could have on “hammocking,” the practice of putting a weaker show between two popular ones, so that the middle program would benefit from viewers’ unwillingness to get up in order to change channels.
The Flash-Matic (pictured above) activated photo cells that were in the four corners of the TV set. It could turn the picture and sound on and off, and it could turn the channel selection dial clockwise and counter-clockwise.
Polley was the 2009 recipient of the Masaru Ibuka Consumer Electronics Award from the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers. He and fellow Zenith engineer Robert Adler were honored in 1997 with an Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for “Pioneering Development of Wireless Remote Controls for Consumer Television.”
Zenith Radio Corp. is now Zenith Electronics LLC, a subsidiary of LG Electronics.