(Left) Eugene Polley (Right) The Flash-Matic remote control
The technology world mourns another loss of innovative inventers with the recent passing of Eugene J. Polley (11/29/1915 – 5/20/2012). Many know him as the inventor of the world’s first wireless remote control known as the ‘Flash-Matic,’ but he contributed much more to the electronics field with 18 US patents to his credit. Born in Chicago, Eugene attended City Colleges of Chicago as well as the Armour Institute of Technology (now called Illinois Institute of Technology) where he left before graduating. In 1935, where the aftermath of the Great Depression was still being felt, Eugene took a stock room job with the Zenith Radio Corporation (later becoming Zenith Electronics LLC). His work took him from the stock-room to the company’s parts department where he was successful in creating their first ever catalog. Mr. Polley soon worked his way up to Zenith’s engineering department when World War 2 broke out. He soon found himself working on various projects including the advancement of RADAR technology for the US. Department of Defense (DoD). After WW2, television became more popular over radio as the means for people to get news and entertainment which is where Eugene’s ‘claim to fame’ as an inventor arose.
In 1955, Eugene developed the Flash-Matic wireless remote control system for Zenith TV’s which was a vast improvement over the company’s ‘Lazy-Bone’ remote that was wired directly to the TV (consumers had a tendency to trip over the wire). His design was ingenious and made use of four photoelectric cells positioned into the four corners of the set that controlled powering on/off the set, raising/lowering the sound volume and changing the channel tuning dial through the use of flashlight-based remote called the ‘Flash-Gun’ (documentation states that any flashlight would work as well, which should be explored again to remedy lost remote problems). Once light hits the corresponding photocell it sends a signal to the remote receiver which activates the desired function. (MIT's Media Lab has taken this concept to smartphones, read how.)
Figure 1: remote receiver.
The receiver then activates the TV’s massive motor-drive gear assembly based off of the corresponding signal which in-turn adjusts volume and TV channels.
Figure 2: gear assembly.
While the Flash-Matic was a huge improvement over wired remotes, it had issues cause by other light sources, mostly sunlight. On sunny days, the set tended to change channels at random so the viewing room had to remain as dark as possible to prevent this from happening. A year later the design was improved upon, and Zenith released the ‘Space Command’ remote which worked using ‘ultrasonics’ or high frequency sound-waves instead of light. Eugene would eventually move on to become Zenith’s product engineer, mechanical engineer all the way up to the Assistant Division Chief for the company’s Mechanical Engineering Group and had a hand in push-button car radio design as well as developing early VCD’s (View CD’s precursor to DVD’s). His career with the company spanned an impressive 47 years. His work earned him and colleague Robert Alder the Technology and Engineering Emmy Award (given by NATAS) in 1996-97 for their pioneering achievements in wireless remote-controls for consumer television as well as IEEE Consumer Electronics Award in 2009 for his contributions to wireless remote-control technology.
While the youth of today may have a limited understanding of how the technology they currently use has evolved over time, they can certainly thank engineering innovators like Mr. Polley for leading the way in developing the technology we now take for granted.
Eugene J. Polley- November 29, 1915 – May 20, 2012