Eugene Polley dies at 96; inventor of wireless TV remote control

Eugene Polley, inventor of the first wireless channel changer, a precursor to the remote control that surfers use to navigate the 500-plus channels offered by modern television, has died. He was 96.

Polley died of natural causes Sunday at a hospital in Downers Grove, Ill., according to Zenith Electronics, where he worked from 1935 to 1982.

Today’s remote control is standard operating equipment.

But for years after Polley’s Flash-Matic debuted in 1955, it was considered a luxury option. Its ascendancy is tied to the explosion of cable television, said John Taylor, a spokesman for Zenith.

“It’s hard to even fathom the world today without the remote control,” Taylor said. “Today it’s not a luxury, it’s not a convenience — it is a necessity.”

Polley long felt he was denied proper credit for the remote control, said his son, Eugene Polley Jr.


The remote he invented used a beam of light directed at sensors in the corners of the set to change channels or turn the picture and sound on and off.

A year later, another Zenith researcher, Robert Adler, a Viennese-born physicist, developed the Space Command remote. The Space Command relied on a series of high-frequency chimes that keyed a sensor to change channels. Both devices had drawbacks, but Adler’s design was embraced by Zenith.

Today’s infrared signal remotes, however, have more in common with Polley’s device, Taylor said.

Polley and Adler, who died in 2007, shared an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1997 for their contributions to Zenith’s introduction of the wireless remote.

But Polley for years felt Adler grabbed too much of the limelight, his son said. For example, it was Adler who once made an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

“Not only did I not get credit for doing anything,” the elder Polley told the Chicago Tribune in 2006. “I got a kick in the rear end.”

“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,” his son said. “But Bob Adler tried to steal his thunder as the inventor of the remote control.”

Zenith takes a diplomatic view on the device’s origins.

“I think that there’s no question that Gene Polley is the father of the wireless remote control,” Taylor said. “There are some news reports that made it seem like he was overshadowed by Dr. Robert Adler. Zenith always considered them the co-inventors.”

Some speculated that Polley’s sensitivity over credit may have stemmed from a class-born grudge. He dropped out of college after two years, while Adler held a doctorate from the University of Vienna.

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 Adler’s death in 2007. “We did something for humanity.”

Polley, a resident of Lombard, Ill., was preceded in death by his wife, Blanche, and a daughter, Joan. In addition to his son, Eugene Jr. of San Diego, he is survived by a grandson.