Today in 1915, the birthday of an inventor who would change our TV viewing habits for the better: Eugene Polley, who created the first wireless remote control system for TVs.


Polley worked for Zenith Corporation as an engineer.

As TV set sales soared in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the company’s president realized that commercials were becoming a headache for viewers, who would either have to sit through them or get up to change the channel.

Zenith wanted to offer viewers a way they could change the channel without having to go all that long way over to the set.

Its first remote was called “Lazy Bones,” and it worked well enough, but it had a cord to connect it to the TV, which was a trip hazard.

The company turned to Polley for a wireless alternative, which he called the Flash-Matic.

A user could shine a light from a remote device at one of four sensors built into the frame of the TV, which could change the channel as well as turn the TV on or off, or mute the sound.

Zenith sold 30,000 Flash-Matic sets in its first year, though it ran into a different problem: the light sensors could be activated by other sources than the remote.

If the TV was in a bright spot in the living room, the sun could start changing channels.

Another Zenith engineer, Robert Adler, used high-frequency sound waves instead of light to create the remote control framework that we’ve been using ever since.

But for the rest of his life Polley made sure that his name was part of the story of how the remote control came to be, and that the story was told.

As he was fond of saying, the remote control was the second most civilized invention ever created, second only to the flush toilet.


Here’s a somewhat less appreciated invention.

Today in 2000, CNN reported on a hairstylist in Colombia who claimed he’d cured baldness by having cows lick his bald customers.

Funny how that didn’t catch on.

Zenith Flash-Matic, the First Wireless TV Remote (Vintage Everyday)

Eugene Polley, Conjuror of a Device That Changed TV Habits, Dies at 96 (New York Times)

Colombian hairdresser says he can lick baldness (CNN)

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Photo by Marilyn via Flickr/Creative Commons