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Remembering Remote Control Inventor Gene Polley

  • Ted Landphair

Whenever someone leaves the earth having changed it, we like to make note of it.

Not just the famous or notorious, but also obscure people who dreamed up something memorable or useful in our everyday lives.
Eugene Polley, inventor of the wireless television remote control, holding his revolutionary device.

Eugene Polley, inventor of the wireless television remote control, holding his revolutionary device.


So we’ve told you about those who brought us the TV dinner, the hula hoop, and that shocking-orange color called “Day-Glo.”

Recently we lost Eugene Polley of Downers Grove, Illinois, at age 96. He invented the Flash-Matic. That may not ring a bell until we tell you that this device, which looked like a combination hair dryer and ray gun, was the first really useful TV remote control.

Although they didn’t know his name, Eugene Polley became a hero to sedentary souls we call “couch potatoes,” and a villain to those who are fighting America’s obesity epidemic.

Polley started as a stock boy at the Zenith Electric Company in Chicago during the Great Depression of the 1930s. But he had a way with gadgets. He studied engineering and eventually helped Zenith develop bomb fuses, push-button radios, and video disks.


But the Flash-Matic was his crowning achievement, which Zenith introduced in 1955. For it, the company gave him a $1,000 bonus - and kept the patent and profits for itself.

The Flash-Matic was not the first hand-held control that could change TV channels and volume. But earlier models were tethered to the set by a cord, over which owners often tripped and on which family dogs sometimes chewed.
The Flashmatic’s flashlight-type beams were aimed at particular points on a receiver that electronically instructed the TV set to turn on and off, go silent, or change channels.

The Flashmatic’s flashlight-type beams were aimed at particular points on a receiver that electronically instructed the TV set to turn on and off, go silent, or change channels.


The Associated Press reported that the Flash-Matic performed “TV miracles” while being “absolutely harmless to humans.” This was noted because kids playing spacemen were running around America at the time, zapping each other with toy ray guns.

The man known as “the father of the remote control” told the Baltimore Sun newspaper in 2000, “It makes me think maybe my life wasn’t wasted. Maybe I did something for humanity, like the guy who invented the flush toilet.”

At Eugene Polley’s passing, Sean O’Neal, a writer on the A.V. Club Web site, suggested a moment of silence in gratitude. To do that, he thought television viewers should punch “mute” on their remotes.
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