Palm Pilots

The inventors of the remote control changed TV history

Television already had a strong hold on the American public by the mid 1950s, but the work of two engineers at Zenith tightened the tube's grip when they designed the first effective wireless remote controls. The work of Gene Polley, who in 1955 created a remote control called the Flash-Matic that used electric photocells to control the TV set, and Dr. Robert Adler, who a year later invented a remote called Space Command that used ultrasonic technology, paved the way for the wide array of remotes used to this day.

For their seminal work on a tool that is now used with virtually every kind of electronic device, Polley and Adler are being honored as electronics innovators with Broadcasting & Cable Technology Leadership Award.

“It was all about power to the people,” says Polley, 90, who retired in 1982 after a 47-year career at Zenith (now LG Electronics). “Let people enjoy things without having to jump up and change the channel. We didn't envision the couch potato in those days. The original reason was to help people who were handicapped.”

While the remotes were designed at a time when most American households had access to only three or four channels, they came into their own in the 1980s, when cable TV began offering scores of viewing options. “The cable people ought to be very happy with us,” says Polley. “We made it possible for their business to take off.”

When Zenith's boss, Cmdr. Eugene F. McDonald Jr. (he had served as a Navy lieutenant commander in World War I) asked his technicians to install a television system in his home, Polley went to work on a remote control that turned the set on and off, changed channels, and adjusted volume. He heard nothing about his invention for months, until he received a telephone call from the firm's chief engineer. The commander was impressed and wanted to put the Flash-Matic into production.

Shaped like a pistol, the battery-powered device was a hit with consumers. But the only supplier of suitable photocells could not keep up with demand, and the quality of the remotes began to falter. Additionally, Zenith found that the Flash-Matic was a popular toy for children, who liked seeing the light flashing from the front of the device and frequently drained the batteries. “It didn't last long if the kids got a hold of it,” Polley says with a laugh.

Adler, meanwhile, was pursuing a different path. Since ultrasound technology was being used to make garage-door openers, he believed it would also work with television sets. His Space Command remote contained a series of tiny aluminum rods struck by a metal ball, which generated a soundwave inaudible to human ears but capable of controlling the TV set.

The remote, which was about the size of a deck of cards, made a clicking sound when the ball hit the aluminum tubes, which is why so many people still refer to remotes as “clickers.” It was a big hit.

Adler, 93, has been in poor health lately, but in a past interview, he discussed the trial-and-error process of finding the right combination of ultrasonic aluminum rods. “There were concerns because we thought that many of the buyers would have large living rooms,” he said. “We had to have the right length to be sure the sound would carry.”

Although it was more expensive to produce, Zenith opted for the Space Command technology, beating competitors to the marketplace by more than three years and changing the way we watch TV. It was the industry standard for a quarter century, before infrared technology took over.

Now that homes are littered with remote controls for TVs, stereos and DVD players, it's difficult to recall that they were originally optional equipment. And despite all the time and effort spent perfecting them at Zenith, it was a good 30 years before they became indispensable.

“Talk about an invention that came before the need,” says Tim Brooks, executive VP of research, Lifetime Television, and a television-history buff. “They really didn't mean anything for the first 30 years. With three or four channels, people weren't surfing the way they do now.”

There were more inventions for both Polley and Adler. Adler went on to collect 180 patents. Polley also remains an inveterate tinkerer, and because he is going blind, he's again trying to make life easier for the handicapped.

“I still try to invent things to help me live with my ailments,” he says. “I have a workshop at home. I've been trying to figure out how to build something so I can project a newspaper into larger print.”