Inventor Of Wireless Remote Revolutionized TV

Eugene Polley, the inventor of the first wireless television remote control, has died at age 96.

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Imagine watching TV and trying to surf through hundreds of channels without a remote control. Well, you have Eugene Polley to thank for not having to get up and turn the knob. He invented the first wireless remote control. Polley passed away last weekend in suburban Chicago. He was 96 years old. NPR's David Schaper tells us more about his life and career.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Gene Polley started in the mailroom at what was then the Zenith Radio Corporation in Chicago in 1935, and he worked his way up to the engineering department.

JOHN TAYLOR: He was a fascinating guy.

SCHAPER: John Taylor is a spokesman for what is now Zenith Electronics and its parent company LG Electronics, and he knew Gene Polley for more than 30 years. Taylor says, in a 47-year career, Polley's inventions earned 18 U.S. patents.

TAYLOR: But he will always be best known as the father of the couch potato.

SCHAPER: In 1955, Polley invented the Flash-Matic, a flashlight-like device that beamed directional light at four photo cells in the corners of the television to change the channel and control the volume.

TAYLOR: To be able to sit in your easy chair and change channels and, more importantly, to mute the sound on those annoying commercials, it was really a big breakthrough in its day.

SCHAPER: At the time, most markets had no more than three or four television stations to choose from, remembers technology consultant Rick Dougherty.

RICK DOUGHERTY: This was the first way to pave the way for having channels that went beyond 13, to have channels that lead up to the 500-channel universe of broadcast, satellite and TV and to the five million channels we enjoy on the Internet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) I came up with something.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Just go. Get out of here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No. Not without you.

SCHAPER: At a Best Buy store in Chicago, under a wall holding dozens of big flat screen TVs, home theater specialist Antonio Woods says none of them have a dial or a knob to change channels.

ANTONIO WOODS: There's no such thing as a television without a remote control. Every - even the televisions that are voice and motion activated still comes with some kind of clicker.

SCHAPER: In fact, Woods says the remotes he sells now control much more than just the TV.

WOODS: We sell home automation systems that come with a remote that can basically control every single electrical component in your home.

SCHAPER: That includes stereo, home security and heating and air-conditioning systems. In fact, 44-year-old customer Pete Ellis is shopping for a new remote-controlled system himself.

PETE ELLIS: Right now, I'm looking at accessing all my music wirelessly so I could play it throughout the house and on my roof deck.

SCHAPER: But Ellis remembers a simpler time when he'd actually have to get up to turn the dial to change channels. Now, it's difficult for Ellis to imagine not having a remote to flip between channels, record and play back favorite shows, even surf the Web on TV. But he notes that not everything about Polley's invention is good.

ELLIS: I would have to say that I think Eugene Polley made everybody 10, 15 pounds heavier and a little lazier. But if he lived to 96, you know, God bless him. God rest his soul too.

SCHAPER: So as he sits down on the couch or lounge chair tonight and reaches for the remote, Ellis and other TV watchers may raise a glass, too, to toast wireless remote control inventor Eugene Polley. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "57 CHANNELS (AND NOTHIN' ON)")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood Hills with a trunk load of hundred thousand dollar bills. Man came by to hook up my cable TV. We settled in for the night, my baby and me. We switched around and around till half-past dawn. There was 57 channels and nothing on, 57 channels and nothing on, 57 channels and nothing on. Well, now, home entertainment was my baby's wish, so I...

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