Farewell to Eugene Polley, Inventor of the Wireless Remote


Some people change the way we view the world. Jesus. Marx. Freud. And Eugene Polley, inventor of the wireless TV remote, who passed away Sunday at age 96. More specifically, Polley created the Flash-Matic, a device whose place in the history of broadcasting was described by Greg Beato in a 2006 Reason column:

Reader, if you seek his monument, look around.

The first [remote], dubbed the Lazy Bones, was a small, grenade-shaped unit with a cable that literally tethered it to the TV. It was good for changing channels and tripping pets and old people. Zenith's second remote used "a magic beam of light" to change channels and adjust volume. The "Flash-matic" looked like a prop from a low-budget sci-fi movie and worked slightly better, especially in cloudy climates. In sunnier regions, however, light streaming in from an open window could duplicate the Flash-matic's actions. Just when you were about to find out if Meta Bauer really had murdered her ex-husband on The Guiding Light, all might go silent. Zenith founder E.F. McDonald felt a better solution was needed.

The Space Command had quirks of its own. The ultrasonic tones it emitted, undetectable to the human ear, often caused dogs to flinch and howl. Jangling key chains and ringing telephones could inadvertently change the channel. But the Space Command worked well enough to satisfy McDonald, and it stayed in production long enough to normalize the idea that TV could be a more interactive, two-way medium….

Once viewers started conducting their own Nielsen ratings every few seconds, TV had to grow more responsive, more competitive. Good night and good luck, Edward R. Murrow and Playhouse 90. We wanted Jethro and Ellie Mae on The Beverly Hillbillies, people devouring pig rectums on Fear Factor, cops tasering protesters on YouTube. Thanks to the Space Command, we got exactly the media we desired, and deserved.

Polley didn't invent the Space Command and its successors, but those other engineers stood on his shoulders, or rested on his barcalounger, or whatever the appropriate metaphor is for a topic like this. So even with their sunshine problems, Polley and his Flash-Matic have as good a claim as anyone to the shift in perception that came when we gained the power to change everything onscreen with a small movement of a finger. Film editors had already altered our worldview with wipes, dissolves, and cuts; but now the viewer could insert her own cuts, jumping merrily from Kraft Television Theater to I've Got a Secret to the static on channel four. As the number of channels multiplied, our private montages grew ever stranger, one disconnected image piling onto another as we groped toward a program worth watching for more than a few seconds at a time. Every Man an Eisenstein.

We're living in Andre Breton's world.
James Sebor

In 1951, four years before Polley's invention arrived, the surrealist capo Andre Breton described his favorite way to watch movies. As a young man, he wrote, he had appreciated

nothing so much as dropping into the cinema when whatever was playing was playing, at any point in the show, and leaving at the first hint of boredom–of surfeit–to rush off to another cinema where we behaved the same way, and so on (obviously this practice would be too much of a luxury today). I have never known anything more magnetising: it goes without saying that more often than not we left our seats without even knowing the title of the film which was of no importance to us anyway.

What was too much of a luxury then is cheap and easy now. The surrealist practice became standard suburban behavior, something to do from the comfort of your couch while munching on some Cheetos and drinking a beer. Thank you, Eugene Polley.