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Couch potatoes have lost a friend; Glen Ellyn man invented first wireless TV remote

Eugene J. Polley inventor first wireless TV remote control

Eugene J. Polley, inventor of the first wireless TV remote control

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Updated: July 2, 2012 8:59AM



Couch potatoes everywhere, you owe a debt of gratitude to Eugene “Gene” Polley, who died Sunday in Downers Grove.

Mr. Polley invented the first wireless TV remote control in 1955 while working as an engineer in Chicago for Zenith. The “Flash-Matic” is now in the Smithsonian Institution.

Mr. Polley, who’d been living at the Meadows retirement community in Glen Ellyn, died at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove. He was 96 and a longtime Lombard resident.

Though he held 18 patents, he was probably best-known for developing the Flash-Matic. Zenith advertised it with the tag line, “A flash of magic light from across the room turns set on, off or changes channels . . . and you remain in your easy chair!”

The invention earned him a $2,000 bonus from the Chicago company, according to John I. Taylor, spokesman for Zenith parent LG Electronics.

Quirky, fun-loving, creative and occasionally a little curmudgeonly, Mr. Polley left behind 27 checking and savings accounts, a testament to his distrust of banks after living through the Great Depression, said his son, Eugene J. Polley Jr.

Mr. Polley’s TV remote — a luxury back then — operated like a flashlight in tandem with Zenith’s Flash-Matic TV. The remote had a light beam that controlled photo cells in each corner of the TV. You aimed the remote at the set to change the channel.

The Flash-Matic would be overtaken by a next-generation remote developed in 1956 by Robert Adler, another Zenith engineer. Both men were honored with an Emmy award in 1997 for their contributions to television.

Then, in 2009, Mr. Polley was awarded the Ibuka, the engineering industry’s highest award, from the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers.

The Flash-Matic’s ultimate impact was huge, making it possible to deal with all of the channels we have today, said Richard Doherty, research director for Envisioneering, a New York tech consulting firm.

“We went from three channels to the dozens to hundreds,” said Doherty. “There wouldn’t have been a way to handle that degree of choice without the remote control. You can’t make a turning dial that will have that many channels.”

The Flash-Matic had another bonus: It could silence the TV, a big plus in the view of Zenith’s founder, Commander Eugene F. McDonald Jr., who loathed commercials.

“When Gene Polley came up with this concept to mute the sound during commercials, Cmdr. McDonald loved it,” Taylor said. “The commander ordered it into production the next day.”

Mr. Polley also helped develop a video disc that evolved into the DVDs and Blu-Rays of today, Taylor said.

As a kid, Mr. Polley “could take anything apart and build just about anything,” according to his son.

He once told an interview that the idea of creating a remote control held special appeal because “the mystery of being able to operate things at a distance intrigued me.”

Shortly before he died, he was still working on an invention, trying to develop an oxygen-supply system for lung patients, based on submarine technology, his son said. And he wrote a letter to LG Electronics suggesting that it devise a way for customers to find a lost remote by pressing a button on their TV.

Mr. Polley studied at the old Armour Institute — now the Illinois Institute of Technology — and the City Colleges. He joined Zenith in 1935.

He was crazy about golf, often braving freezing weather to play. He particularly enjoyed playing an entire course using just his favorite 1940s-era putter for every stroke. “He loved to play people with one club,” his son said.

When Mr. Polley and his wife, Blanche, were first married, “If they had two dollars for a date, they’d get five gallons of gasoline and go off and have a picnic,” the younger Polley said. “And they played golf together.”

In 2006, Mr. Polley was a guest of honor for the Annoyance Theatre’s production of “The Invention Show.”

“He gave a little speech about how he had no idea at the time about what an amazing thing it would be and how it would be in every home,” said Annoyance Theatre company president Jennifer Estlin, recalling that he charmed everyone there. “He was really delightful.”

Mr. Polley is also survived by a grandson, Aaron. His wife and his daughter, Joan Polley, died before him.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lombard, followed by burial at Assumption Cemetery in Wheaton.



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