It was still fresh and wondrous, this technological landmark of a giant electronic box full of tubes that displayed moving images for entertaining and informing the world. So imagine the added allure of “TV miracles.”
That was Zenith Radio Corporation’s ad campaign in 1955 as the company promoted its new television with Flash-Matic tuning. The TV featured a green ray gun-like device with a red trigger, a “flash tuner” that was billed as “absolutely harmless to humans!”
“Without budging from your easy chair you can turn your new Zenith Flash-Matic set on, off, or change channels.” Even better, the gun-shaped apparatus was an intentionally symbolic showpiece during this early era of TV Westerns: “You can even shut off annoying commercials while the picture remains on the screen.”
Zenith engineer Eugene J. Polley’s innovation—the world’s first wireless TV remote control—was an instant hit, sparking the sale of about 30,000 units. This was especially impressive in light of the fact that a TV was still viewed as a luxury, and the remote added $100 to the set’s already daunting $500 price tag.
Not an easy path to commercial success
In today’s world, with hundreds of cable channels and our escalating reliance on push-button convenience, the wireless TV remote is Polley’s defining career achievement. It came despite a challenging upbringing and struggles for recognition even after his breakthrough.
Born on Nov. 29, 1915, in Chicago, he was raised mainly by his mother after his bootlegger father left the family. He attended the City Colleges of Chicago and Armour Institute of Technology but left before graduating, instead taking a job as a stock boy with Zenith Radio Corporation in 1935 to help his mother during the Depression. From there, he leveraged his mechanical skills to move up to the engineering department.
Polley’s signature innovation followed decades of wireless creations in other fields by notables such as British physicist Sir Oliver Lodge and Nikola Tesla—the latter who radio-controlled a boat during an exhibition at New York’s Madison Square Garden in the late 1890s.
In 1950, Zenith developed its first TV remote control, “Lazy Bones.”
According to Zenith, the remote used a cable that ran from the TV set to the viewer; a motor in the set operated the tuner through the remote control. By pushing buttons on the remote control, viewers turned the tuner clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on whether they wanted to change the channel to a higher or lower number. The remote control included On and Off buttons.
But consumers quickly grew tired of the intrusion of a cord, especially the possibility (and reality) of tripping over it while it lay on the floor. Additionally, Commander Eugene F. McDonald Jr., Zenith’s founder and president, wanted a way to limit the intrusion of TV commercials.
Polley’s creation addressed both issues. Flash-Matic operated via four photo cells, one in each corner of the TV screen. 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 counter-clockwise.
Polley once told the Baltimore Sun that Flash-Matic “makes me think maybe my life wasn’t wasted. Maybe I did something for humanity—like the guy who invented the flush toilet.”
Short-lived inventor fame
Although Polley’s invention is still used in principle today, it needed refining as well. The remote had to be pointed precisely at a certain point on the TV screen to work, and because it had no protection circuits it was susceptible to turning the dial randomly if the TV set sat in an area where light or the sun shone directly on it.
After just one year, Flash-Matic was replaced when Zenith coworker Robert Adler came up with a remote called Space Command. The new device—which made clicking sounds, spawning the use of the term “TV clicker”—eschewed light waves for inaudible, high-frequency sound waves to control the commands.
Even though something like jingling keys or coins could set it off occasionally, Space Command technology was the standard in remotes for more than a quarter-century and resulted in the sale of more than 9 million sets, according to the New York Times. (Sonic-controlled, infrared and radio-frequently models took over in succeeding decades.)
Space Command was such a game-changer that some media outlets erroneously credit it as the first wireless TV remote. This didn’t sit well with Polley, a lifelong Chicago-area resident who told the Chicago Tribune in 2006 that “not only did I not get credit for doing anything, I got a kick in the rear end.”
In 1997, Polley and Adler received an Emmy for their work in pioneering TV remotes. Two years later, Polley received the Masaru Ibuka Consumer Electronics Award from the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers.
But Polley was no Flash in the pan. He amassed 18 U.S. patents during his 47-year career as an engineer and worked on radar advances for the U.S. Department of Defense during World War II. He also helped develop the push-button radio for cars and the video disk, the precursor to DVDs.
According to Zenith Electronics spokesman John Taylor, Polley routinely showed off the Flash-Matic to visitors at his assisted-living facility up to his death in 2012 at age 96. “He was a proud owner of a flat-screen TV and modern remote,” Taylor said, but “he always kept his original remote control with him.”