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Eugene Polley and the Television Remote

May 25, 2012

Nikola Tesla patented the first remote control device in 1898. He used radio and a coherer detector to control a boat just a decade after Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the existence of radio waves. Tesla's 1898 patent was referenced by another patent as late as 2005.[1] Remote controls

A collection of infrared remote control devices in my house. The Verizon FIOS remote gets the most use.

(Photo by author)

The remote control devices that are most used, today, don't use radio waves. Television remote controls (see photograph, above) use infrared light, a technology that was practical to implement only after the development of the light-emitting diode. Television, however, has been with us since the late 1940s, and it's understandable that some form of remote control was wanted shortly thereafter.

The simplest, but not very aesthetic, nor safe, solution was to have a wire connect a television with remote buttons. Eugene Polley, who worked for Zenith Electronics, a major television manufacturer, created the first true television remote in 1955.[2] Polley's device used light, but not digitally encoded light as is used in today's remotes. Polley's data was spatially encoded; that is, you needed to point a light at certain portions of the television set for control. Polley died on May 20, 2012, at age 96.[3-9]

In a story that was common in the past, but not much today, Polley, who was not a college graduate, began work at Zenith as a stock boy, and he worked his way into the engineering department. During World War II, he worked on ship-detecting radar and fuses for bombs.[6]

A patent application for his remote control device, called the Flash-Matic, was filed in 1955, but he continued inventing after that time, spending forty-seven years with Zenith and earning eighteen US patents. Polley received a $1,000 bonus for the Flash-Matic.[6] The invention, which was only marketed for one year, grossed about three million dollars for Zenith.

One of Polley's other inventions, which I wrote about in a previous article (Couch Potato Hero, February 22, 2007), was an ultrasonic version of his optical remote. He developed this with physicist, Robert Adler, who died in 2007 at age ninety-three.[10] The ultrasonic idea was Polley's, and Adler's design was novel in that it didn't need batteries. Mechanical motion would ring metal tines that vibrated at ultrasonic frequencies. The ultrasonic remote was named the "Space Command."[3]

Zenith Space Commander 600 remote control

This later version of the ultrasonic remote, the Zenith Space Commander 600, was sold with color television sets between 1965 and 1972.

(Via Wikimedia Commons))

The metal tines were of different length, so they vibrated at different frequencies. These frequencies were detected at the television, although there was sometimes interference from other sound sources, such as jangling keys and spilled coins. Zenith sold more than nine million of the ultrasonic remotes between 1956 and 1982.

Polley's "Flash-Matic" remote worked by flashing a light beam from a handheld unit onto one of four photodetectors in the television (see diagram). One photodetector turned the set on and off, two others changed the channel up or down, and a third muted the sound.[6] The mute feature appealed to Zenith's founder and president, Eugene F McDonald, who thought that commercials were too distracting. One advertisement for the Flash-Matic states, "You can even shut off annoying commercials while the picture remains on the screen. Just a flash of light does it."[7]

The device worked, but televisions would sometimes be triggered by sunlight and room lights. The remote feature added about 20% to the cost of a television set.[9] Nonetheless, Zenith sold nearly 30,000 "Flash-Matic" equipped televisions. Another problem was that Polley's unit needed a battery, and these were much larger and didn't last as long as the batteries in today's remotes. The ultrasonic remote solved the battery problem.

Figure one of US Patent No. 2,903,575, 'Control System,' by E. J. Polley, September 8, 1959

Figure one of US Patent No. 2,903,575, "Control System," by E. J. Polley,
September 8, 1959.

I've highlighted the photocell locations in red.

(Via Google Patents))

Since Polley had developed the "Flash-Matic," and both Polley and Adler were involved with the ultrasonic remote, they are credited as co-inventors of remote technology. Adler and Polley were awarded an Emmy in 1997 by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

In a controversy reminiscent of the invention of another optical device, the laser, it appeared that Adler took most of the credit for the invention of the television remote. It was Adler, not Polley, who appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."[3] Polley's son is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "My father's point of view was that when somebody came up with the jet engine for the airplane, he didn't take credit away from the Wright Brothers... But Bob Adler tried to steal his thunder as the inventor of the remote control."[3]

Polley is quoted in The New York Times as saying, in a 2002 interview, "A father has to be present at conception... And if you're not, you're not the father."[6] Zenith considered Polley and Adler to be co-inventors of the television remote.[3] Adler, late in his life, admitted that Polley didn't receive enough of the credit. Adler thought that the remote was one of his least-important inventions.[3]

Polley disagreed, comparing the invention of the remote to the invention of the flush toilet, and saying it was almost as important as sex.[6,9] He would proudly show the original remote to visitor to his home.[5]


  1. Nikola Tesla, "Method and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles," US Patent No. 613,809, November 8, 1898.
  2. E. J. Polley, "Control System," US Patent No. 2,903,575, September 8, 1959.
  3. Brian Slodysko, "Eugene Polley dies at 96; inventor of wireless TV remote control," Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2012.
  4. Eugene Polley, inventor of TV remote control, dies at 96, Guardian (UK), May 23, 2012.
  5. Hannah Furness, "Eugene Polley, inventor of the remote control, dies aged 96," Telegraph (UK), May 23, 2012.
  6. Margalit Fox, "Eugene Polley, Conjuror of a Device That Changed TV Habits, Dies at 96," The New York Times, May 22, 2012.
  7. Hannah Rand, "The couch potato's hero: Inventor of the world's first remote television control dies," Daily Mail (UK), May 22, 2012.
  8. TV remote control inventor Eugene Polley dies at 96, BBC News, May 22, 2012.
  9. Emily Langer, "Eugene J. Polley, engineer who invented the first wireless TV remote control, dies at 96," Washington Post, May 22, 2012.
  10. Patricia Sullivan, "Robert Adler, 93; Engineer, Co-Inventor of TV Remote Control." (Washington Post)
  11. 1959 Zenith Space Command Television, YouTube video, May 29, 2009.

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