June 18, 2015

A pile of remote controls. Credit: Redjar / Flickr Creative Commons

And now a dip into history...

Eugene Polley was in his 80s – an age when most people are kicking back, hanging out with grandchildren, and sipping iced tea in the backyard.

But he wasn’t ready to relax. He was ticked off.

The credit that he thought he deserved for his life’s work had been showered on a fancy inventor from Europe, who earned his Ph.D. in physics by the time he was 24.

Eugene Polley, as far as he could tell, was getting shafted. He was so annoyed that he told a newspaper that he’d gotten “a kick in the rear end.”

Polley suspected that his modest background was keeping the media at bay– he was born to a bootlegger in Chicago, from a broken family, not well educated, and poor enough to take any job he could get.

The gig he ended up with was a stockboy at a company where he remained for nearly 50 years: Zenith Radio Corporation.

He was a tinkerer, a self-taught engineer who racked up more than a dozen patents. And his big breakthrough came in the 50s through Zenith’s big new business: television.

Polley figured out how to control a TV with a beam of light. It was rolled out in 1955 as the Flash-Matic, the first real forerunner to today’s remote control.

Of course, it was nothing like what we have now. It looked like an enormous, green hairdryer, and it was a little too sensitive to light – switching on a lamp in the room could turn the channel. People even noticed that, as the sun went down, the TV sometimes switched over to a different program.

Zenith ultimately decided to name Eugene Polley – and that fancy European physicist  – co-creators of the remote control.   

Polley might not have gotten as much recognition as he wanted, but he was thrilled with his creation – and remained that way until he died at age 96.

"This,” he said, “is the greatest thing since the wheel. We did something for humanity."

Sci and Tech, Kara Miller, historical innovation, remote control

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