Eugene Polley, RIP

When I was young, my parents had convincing stories of youthful hardship: long walks to school, hauling coal for 25 cents a ton, the deprivations of the Depression, World War II, and so on.

My stories of the average Gen X childhood are considerably less impressive (although my son remains fascinated by the dangers of lawn darts). I’m reduced to saying things like “We actually had to get up to change the TV station!”

The man who ended that long national nightmare has changed his last channel. Eugene Polley, inventor of the TV remote control, has passed away at the age of 91. An employee of Zenith Electronics from 1935 until 1982, he invented the Flash-Matic in 1955. The device was basically an elaborate flashlight that turned a TV on and off and changed the channels by triggering photo cells in the corners of the screen. It didn’t work on sunny days, and was soon replaced by model that used sound, but it was the precursor to the infrared changers in use today.

From the LA Times.

Polley was born Nov. 29, 1915, in Chicago to a mother who was shunned by her well-to-do family because of her relationship with his father, a “ne’er do well” bootlegger, Polley’s son said.

His parents separated when Polley was a boy and his mother, Vera Wachowski, struggled to get by on her own. Polley, who demonstrated a remarkable mechanical aptitude from an early age, found a job as a parts clerk for Zenith Radio Corp. in 1935.

From the stockroom, he rose through Zenith’s engineering department, holding positions including product engineer and assistant division chief for the mechanical engineering group. Over the years his inventions earned 18 U.S. patents, and he worked on devices including push-button radios for automobiles, according to Zenith.

Adler, who before his death acknowledged that Polley did not get enough credit for the remote control, considered the remote control one of his lesser inventions.

Polley had no such misgivings about the importance of the remote.

“This is the greatest thing since the wheel,” he told the Tribune upon [inventor Robert] Adler’s death in 2007. “We did something for humanity.”

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Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.