Eugene Polley, 96, an engineer who revolutionized American leisure by inventing the wireless TV remote control, died on Sunday in Downers Grove, Ill. Polley lived his entire life in the Chicago area, where he worked for Zenith Electronics for 47 years. Hired as a stock boy during the Depression, he eventually became an engineer with 18 patents to his credit. His most important innovation was the Flash-Matic, a ray-gun remote control first sold in 1955 just as television sets were becoming commonplace. Within decades, a television could be found in practically every U.S. home -- and in some cases in every room. Nearly every set had a remote to go with it. "It makes me think maybe my life wasn't wasted," Polley once said. "Maybe I did something for humanity -- like the guy who invented the flush toilet."
Polley's invention was not the first TV remote control. In 1950, Zenith released the Lazy Bones, a device tethered to the television by a long cord. The Lazy Bones allowed viewers to change channels and turn the set on and off from their seats, but the cord proved dangerous and inelegant. Zenith's founder, Eugene McDonald, demanded something better. Instead of a wire, Polley's device used a light beam to send signals to receptors in the corners of the TV set. The top corners received signals to change channels; the bottom corners received signals to mute or turn off the set. "Absolutely harmless to humans!" Flash-Matic advertisements promised. "You can even shut off annoying commercials while the picture remains on the screen." The device was an extravagance, adding $100 to the cost of a television that sold for $500 in 1955. Polley, who had received a $1,000 bonus for his invention, expressed some ambivalence about what it had wrought. "Everything has to be done remotely now or forget it," he once said. "Nobody wants to get off their fat and flabby to control these electronic devices."