Eugene J. Polley, a man best known for inventing the first wireless television remote control, died of natural causes on Sunday at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Illinois. He was 96.
Polley bagan his career in 1935 working for Zenith Radio Corporation (now Zenith Electronics, a subsidiary of LG Electronics). In 1955, he introduced the world to the first-ever wireless TV remote control, the "Flash-Matic," which changed channels on a TV set using a photo-cell activating flashlight-like device. The Flash-Matic was temperamental, requiring precise angling to successfully work, but its arrival was a huge advancement from Zenith's first TV remote, a device called—no kidding—the "Lazy Bones," which was connected to the TV set by an umbilical-like wire cord.
Cordless control allowed audiences a vastly new experience of consuming television: For the first time ever, the could switch programs without getting up to turn the dial. No longer were programs endured simply because they were too lazy to get up off the couch. Commercials could be avoided by switching channels, or muted, with just the press of a button. "Channel surfing" become a thing.
The remote also inspired significant changes in television programming and commercial airings. After an NBC research term discovered that 25% of their audience changed channels as soon as the credits started rolling, the NBC 2000 unit (responsible for primetime branding of the network) invented the "squeeze-and-tease," the split screen credits that roll alongside the last few minutes of a program. (A current example of a show using the squeeze-and-tease is HBO's Veep.) Commercials were moved from their between-program slot to right in the middle of a show, to avoid losing viewers to the lag time of an advertisement transition.
Eugene Polley worked his way through Zenith's stockroom, to its parts department, and ultimately to the engineering department where he spent most of his career. He was responsible for producing Zenith's first catalog. During World War II, Polley worked on radar advances for the US Department of Defense. In his 47-year career with Zenith, Polley held numerous high-ranking technology positions, including Head of Video Recording Group and Assistant Division Chief for the Mechanical Engineering Group. 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."
Eugene Polley was born in Chicago on November 29, 1915. He was a longtime resident of Lombard, Illinois, where was was active in village government. He is survived by his son Eugene J. Polley Jr., and grandson, Aaron, of San Diego, Calif; preceding him in death are his wife, Blanche, and daughter, Joan Polley.
Ushered into the Golden Age of Television with Mr. Polley's Zenith Flash-Matic, entire generations were presented with their first "clicker," "gizmo," "thingamabob," "whatsit." It was and will forever be the gadget we're always looking for and never can find. The one we brave couch-cushion crumbs to retrieve, start slapping fights with our siblings to secure. It's come a long way since the finnicky Flash-Matic of the fifties, but the TV remote remains a mainstay household gadget all these years later, one few of us could imagine growing up without.
Thank you, Eugene Polley. [MarketWatch]