May 23, 2012
| by Scott Wasser
In honor of yesterday’s news of the passing of remote pioneer Eugene Polley, we offer you this from the EH archives:
The first TV remote control in my childhood home nearly killed me. The second nearly killed my mom. Let me explain:
The first TV remote in our house wasn’t ultrasonic, infrared, or even mechanical. It was me.
“Turn that up a little bit,” Dad would instruct, pointing at our television set.
“Can you tune in the picture a little better?” Mom would ask.
“It’s time for Bonanza,” Dad would announce. “Change the channel.”
“Oh, I’ve seen that commercial a million times,” Mom said. “Switch over to Bewitched for a minute. And please turn that volume down!” she’d add just as I was about to sit down.
During a typical evening of family television viewing, I’d burn more calories than in a month of junior high gym classes. And whenever my grandparents came over to watch our new color television, there was a serious chance I would become the first student in the history of my school to have a coronary.
All of that took place long after Zenith Radio Corporation introduced the world’s first television remote control in 1950. The “Lazy Bones,” as it was called, worked OK, activating a motorized mechanical tuner on the TV set to which it was linked. The problem is that its link was a long cable. The convenience of being able to switch between the few channels available at the time was offset by the potential danger posed by a cord that had to be deftly avoided in dim light during commercial break food and bathroom runs.
But the potential peril posed by the Lazy Bones’ cord paled by comparison to the second remote control that appeared in our home, the one that nearly killed my mother. That remote consisted of a couple of 14-gauge electrical wires that started at my bed, wound their way through several eyelets screwed strategically into my bedroom walls and ceiling, and ended at a couple of locking pliers attached to my TV’s volume knob and channel dial.
Pulling one wire adjusted the volume and yanking the other changed channels – but only enough to select six of 13 on the dial. That was six too many for my mother. She walked into my room the day after I’d rigged my “remote control system,” failed to spot the channel-changing wire that crossed the door opening, and nearly decapitated herself.
So my Rube Goldberg-inspired remote wound up having a shorter lifespan than the second commercially available TV remote, the “Flash-Matic.” Like the Lazy Bones, Flash-Matic was another Zenith creation, this one the brainchild of an engineer named Eugene Polley. It became the world’s first wireless television remote control when the Zenith introduced it in 1955.
Flash-Matic was basically a Buck Rogers-looking flashlight with a focused beam that was used to activate four photo sensors built into the corners of select Zenith TVs. Each sensor served a specific function. By aiming the Flash-Matic at the appropriate corner, the user could turn the TV on or off, change channels, and adjust volume. One problem with Flash-Matic is that users had to remember which corner sensor performed which function. But what doomed the device was that the sensors were non-discriminating: Bright light that streamed through a window or bounced off a reflective surface could force viewers who really loved Lucy to spend some quality time with Red Skelton instead.