The success of an idea can often be assessed by its ubiquity. With that as our gauge, we can conclusively state Eugene Polley died having reached the acme of success. Polley, 96, who died Sunday invented the wireless television remote control.

The success of an idea can often be assessed by its ubiquity. With that as our gauge, we can conclusively state Eugene Polley died having reached the acme of success. Polley, 96, who died Sunday invented the wireless television remote control.

Prior to his “signal” achievement, the work of changing channels and adjusting volume was a chore farmed out to children or adults who decided the program in front of them was sufficiently unacceptable as to merit a rise from the sofa. In the era since Polley’s invention, television viewing has become actively more passive. Don’t like what’s on? A click of the remote is all it takes to change it. (Some men apparently get mesmerized by the device, never getting beyond the changing channel part to actually watching something - anything.)

The Zenith Corp. first manufactured Polley’s invention. The company issued a news release upon his passing. According to Zenith, the remote control was introduced in 1955. It was sold under the name “Flash-Matic” wireless control. “It used a flashlight-like device to activate photocells on the television set to change channels,” the Zenith news release details.

The first iteration of the technology was less than elegant. “The viewer used a highly directional flashlight to activate the four control functions, which turned the picture and sound on and off and changed channels by turning the tuner dial clockwise and counterclockwise,” Zenith says.

“A flash of magic light from across the room (no wires, no cords) turns set on, off or changes channels and you remain in your easy chair!” boasts one advertisement from the early days of remote wielding.

Fast forward a few decades to today’s dizzying array of touchscreen, whole-house, infra-red remotes that can control not only televisions, cable boxes, stereos and their kin, but also lights, ceiling fans, blinds, thermostats and all manner of household electronics. Of course, with such power comes complexity.

Who among us hasn’t picked up the wrong remote, pointed it at the device and become increasingly frustrated when harder button pushes elicit no change. Yes, we push harder, because pushing harder will magically make the wrong remote work… just as raising one’s voice to a foreigner makes them understand English.

Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic, describes how Polley’s invention presaged many of the technological advances we now take for granted. “The new device meant people could change channels quickly and easily from the comfort of their sectionals, and that affordance meant that television stations could not continue to sell advertising or deliver programming the way that they had before when it was more difficult to change the channel. I do not think it is an accident that we started channel surfing (1986) before we started surfing the Web.”

The online publication makes a similar point, “Cordless control allowed audiences a vastly new experience of consuming television: “For the first time ever, they could switch programs without getting up to turn the dial. No longer were programs endured simply because they were too lazy to get up off the couch. Commercials could be avoided by switching channels, or muted, with just the press of a button. ‘Channel surfing’ became a thing.”

The remote paved the way for digital video recorders, devices that permit us to watch programming on a schedule of our choosing. They also allow us to skip through unwanted bits (i.e. commercials). Here too, information consumption and entertainment have been transformed.

In short, we’d like to thank Polley for his invention. We only hope that St. Peter had fresh batteries in the remote for the Pearly Gates.