Former Zenith engineer received Emmy for his work

Eugene Polley, the inventor of the first wireless TV remote control, died of natural causes Sunday at a suburban Chicago hospital. He was 96.

Couch potatoes everywhere have Polley to thank for hours of feet-up, channel surfing. His invention began as a luxury but has become a necessity in an era of hundreds of TV channels and home theaters. Just ask anyone who’s lost a remote.

Polley’s 1955 Flash-Matic pointed a beam of light at photo cells in the corners of the screen. This activated the picture and sound and changed channels.

Beyond keeping TV viewers pinned to their chairs, Polley’s invention unchained technology from mechanical knobs and levers, opening vast possibilities, said Richard Doherty, CEO of suburban New York-based technology assessment and market research company Envisioneering.

“Without his idea you might not have gotten to the Internet,” Doherty said. “It allowed you to go beyond the physical dial. It set the pace for dozens for follow-on inventions that go beyond the physical.”

During his 47-year career as an engineer, Polley earned 18 U.S. patents. At Zenith, he worked his way up from the stockroom. Polley also worked on radar advances for the Dept. of Defense during WWII. He helped develop the push-button radio for automobiles and the video disk, a forerunner of today’s DVD.

Polley and fellow Zenith engineer Robert Adler were honored in 1997 with an Emmy for their work in pioneering TV remotes.

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