Remembering Eugene Polley and his Flash-Matic remote (photos)

The inventor of the first television remote control passed away earlier this week. Here's a look back at his groundbreaking device.


James Martin

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1 of 13 Zenith

Flash-Matic: A flash of magic light

Working for Zenith in the early 1950s, Eugene Polley's Flash-Matic early-era remote control was seen as an almost magical device. The futuristic ray-gun shot a beam of light at photo receptors located at the four corners of the television screen, giving TV viewers the ability to change channels and turn on and off the picture and sound for the first time without leaving their seat.
On Sunday, the wireless innovator passed away at the age of 96.
This advertisement is for the 1955 Zenith Flash-Matic Tuning, the first wireless remote. Touting the ability to turn off "annoying commercials" with the the futuristic beam of light, Zenith's ad says "You have to see it to believe it!"
2 of 13 Flashlightmuseum.com

The toy-like Flash-matic

The toy-like Flash-Matic by Zenith was the industry's first wireless TV remote, and ran off of two C batteries.
3 of 13 Zenith

A beam of light

This photo illustration ad for the Flash-Matic remote control, designed by Eugene Polley, shows the beam of light and the photo receptors in the corners of the television.
The remote was similar to a flashlight. These first-generation remote controls used regular visible light to control the functions and thus were subject to all sorts of interference from the lighting in the room or sunlight coming in through windows.
4 of 13 vintagetvsets.com

The first set sold with wireless remote control

This Zenith was the first set sold with wireless remote control.
5 of 13 Zenith/Flashlightmuseum.com

Four points of light

This diagram from the user guide for a 1955 Zenith shows the points of contact for the light beam. The upper left corner controls the counterclockwise channel selector, the upper right controls the clockwise channel selector, the lower right is the picture on/off, and the lower right turns the sound on and off.
6 of 13 Zenith/Flashlightmuseum.com

Operators guide cover

The front cover of the official operators guide for the original 1955 Zenith, which shipped with the Flash-Matic.
7 of 13 Zenith/Flashlightmuseum.com

Aim the beam of light

"Simply aim the beam of light from the Flash-Gun into the 'slot' or window on the television escutcheon containing the control to be operated."
8 of 13 Zenith/Flashlight

Changing channels with light

The operator's guide tells how you can change channels clockwise or counter clockwise by aiming the Flash-Matic light gun at the photo receptors.
9 of 13 Zenith

Truly amazing in 1955

"Here is a truly amazing television development -- and only Zenith has it!"
10 of 13 Zenith

Works TV miracles!

This Zenith ad proclaims the ray-gun "works TV miracles!" and is "absolutely harmless to humans!"
11 of 13 Jim Reese/Wikipedia

Space Command's high-frequency tones

Polley went on to design the next-generation remote controls with engineer Robert Adler. The "Space Command" system used aluminum rods, similar to tuning forks, which were struck by hammers toggled by the buttons on the device, producing high-frequency tones that would then control functions on the television set.
By the 1960s, Zenith remotes began using ultrasonic signals, a technology which was used for the next 25 years, until being replaced by infrared systems capable of more complex commands.
Polley and Adler shared a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award in 1996 for their "Pioneering Development of Wireless Remote Control for Consumer Television." In 2009, Polley received the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Consumer Electronics Award for his contributions to the technology of the wireless remote control for television and other consumer electronic products.
12 of 13 Zenith

Zenith Space Command

Following the tepid response to the functionality of the Flash-Matic, the Zenith Space Command, first produced in 1956, was considered the first practical wireless remote control.
13 of 13 Zenith

From Flash-Matic to Space Command

The problems due to the visible light use of the Flash-Matic quickly rendered the system unusable and it was only sold for one year, followed by Zenith's improved ultrasonic "Space-Command" system in 1956.

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