Within 48 hours of posting an order form on his Web site, Altman says so many people responded that the site crashed twice. He received orders for 3,200 zappers—which are about the size of a car-alarm remote and retail for $14.99—right off the bat, and more than 6,200 eager e-mailers have asked to be notified when the next shipment arrives.
Clearly, the gizmo has hit a nerve-at times a tender one. Altman has been called "holier than thou" and worse in Web blogs—while confusing unsuspecting TV viewers. "I don't think [the TV] should be turned off for just one individual," says janitor Virgilio Balaguer, 39, at a hospital watching a baseball game Altman twice clicked off to demonstrate his zapper. Altman concedes there are "a lot of tricky ethical questions involved" with his device; some lawyers say turning off a public TV could be a form of trespassing in some cases. And certainly, pranksters could misuse it. "But I see it as similar to secondhand smoke," Altman says. "One person's media can affect everyone's space."
Altman got the idea for TV-B-Gone while at a restaurant with some friends. As they ate, their attention was inexorably drawn to the television, recalls Altman, who as a teen repaired TVs for fun. Two years ago he started building the gadget, pumping $150,000 of his own money into it. He doesn't know what he will invent next but is considering something equally controversial: Cell-Phone-B-Gone. "I just haven't figured out a way to do it," he says. "Yet."