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Wednesday, May 23, 2012 - Page updated at 08:30 p.m.

Eugene Polley, who invented wireless TV remote, dies at 96

By The Washington Post and The Associated Press

CHICAGO — Eugene Polley, an electronics engineer who revolutionized American leisure by inventing the wireless TV remote control, a gadget that also featured the first mute function to silence the more obnoxious sounds of television, died Sunday.

Polley died of natural causes at a suburban Chicago hospital, said Zenith Electronics spokesman John Taylor. The former Zenith engineer was 96.

In 1955, if you wanted to switch TV channels you got up from your chair, walked across the room and turned a knob. Or you could buy a new Zenith television with Flash-Matic tuning. The TV came with a green ray-gun-shaped contraption with a red trigger. The advertising promised "TV miracles." The "flash tuner" was "Absolutely harmless to humans!"

Beyond keeping TV viewers pinned to their chairs, Polley's invention unchained technology from mechanical knobs and levers, opening vast possibilities, said Richard Doherty, CEO of suburban New York-based technology-assessment and market-research company Envisioneering.

"Without his idea you might not have gotten to the Internet," Doherty said. "It allowed you to go beyond the physical dial. It set the pace for dozens for follow-on inventions that go beyond the physical."

Polley was proud of his invention even late in life, Taylor said. He showed visitors at his assisted-living apartment his original Flash-Matic and how it had evolved into the technology of today.

"It makes me think maybe my life wasn't wasted," Polley once told the Baltimore Sun. "Maybe I did something for humanity — like the guy who invented the flush toilet."

Polley's Flash-Matic pointed a beam of light at photo cells in the corners of the television screen. Each corner activated a different function, turning the picture and sound off and on, and changing the channels.

During his 47-year career as an engineer, Polley earned 18 U.S. patents. At Zenith, he worked his way up from the stockroom, according to a biography from Lincolnshire, Ill.-based LG Electronics, which owns Zenith. Polley also worked on radar advances for the U.S. Department of Defense during World War II. He helped develop the push-button radio for automobiles and the video disk, a forerunner of today's DVD.

Polley's invention was not the first TV remote control. In 1950, Zenith released the Lazy Bones, a device tethered to the television by a long cord, which proved to be inelegant and dangerous.

The Flash-Matic technology also was imperfect. The TV receptors sometimes mistook changes in light, including sunsets, for commands.

Polley's Flash-Matic sold about 30,000 units before it was supplanted in 1956 by the Space Command, a remote control invented by Zenith physicist Robert Adler. That device used tiny hammers to strike metal rods, sending commands by ultrasonic wave. It emitted a clicking noise, giving rise to the moniker "clicker," and became the industry standard for a quarter-century. Modern remote controls use infrared technology.

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