Happy Sunday! Welcome to Holy Shift, where we highlight big innovations in the auto and racing industries each week—whether they be necessary or simply for comfort.
It was just another day on the road in the 1940s, as engineer Ralph Teetor sat in the passenger seat alongside his patent attorney. As they conversed, Teetor couldn’t help but notice that his driver would speed up and slow down while talking. He wanted that little annoyance fixed.
So, as any capable engineer would, he fixed it. In 1950, Teetor secured the first patent for a cruise-control device.
Perhaps what is almost as interesting as Teetor’s invention is the fact that he visualized its blueprint mentally—any sketches, he couldn’t see. Teetor lost his eyesight at 5 years old, but that didn’t stop him from impressing others at an early age. His tool skills were so advanced by age 10 that his father built him a workshop, and Teetor later helped build and install basketball goals at school.
Following high school, Teetor decided that he would pursue engineering. But, as expected, it wasn’t easy for him. From How Engineers Create the World: The Public Radio Commentaries of Bill Hammack:
... because 1906 was not as enlightened as today, many colleges refused to even consider [Teetor’s] application. Teetor had a cousin attending the University of Pennsylvania. So, Ralph visited the school and persuaded the Dean of Engineering to admit him. Teetor excelled in the mechanical engineering program and on graduation became an inventor.
The dean’s choice was a good one, as Teetor went on to invent his own new versions of locks, fishing rods and the automatic transmission. One of the most famous things to stem from his mental artistry and engineering expertise was in fact the cruise-control system, which began as just a simple annoyance.
In its early years, Teetor’s cruise control went through more names than Snoop Dogg (Lion? Dogg? Has he chosen yet?). According to About.com Inventors, Teetor called his new system the “Controlmatic,” “Touchomatic,” “Pressomatic” and “Speedostat” before coming to a halt—bad joke intended—at “Cruise Control.”
But Teetor wasn’t the first to exercise control over an engine, and car engines weren’t first to be put on a metaphorical leash. That move actually came almost 200 years prior—no, there is not an extra zero in that figure—in the late 1700s. From Flotation: A Guide for Sensory Deprivation, Relaxation, & Isolation Tanks:
The centrifugal governor of a steam engine, as designed by James Watt in 1788, reduces the throttle valve in response to increases in the engine speed, or opens the valve if the speed falls below the pre-set rate.
Teetor did lead the way for set cruising speeds in the automotive industry, though. Chrysler adopted his system in 1958, and major automakers followed in its tire tracks by the 1960s.
These days, it can be hard to imagine a days-long family road trip without a little bit of cruise control. For that relief, we have a man to thank who couldn’t see the fruits of his labor—only feel them. Or, if he accomplished his goal, he could only feel the absence of his attorney’s distracted throttle techniques.
As for whether Teetor could have accomplished more with the ability to see his labor, he had a unique perspective. From How Engineers Create the World:
One of the engineers who worked with him on the first cruise control device asked “With all that you have been able to accomplish, what more do you think you would have done if you had been able to see?” Ralph replied, with a smile, “I probably couldn’t have done as much, because I can concentrate, and you can’t.”
Well, at least the cruise control can concentrate for us.
If you have suggestions for future innovations to be featured on Holy Shift—in street cars, the racing industry or whatever you’d like—feel free to send an email to the address below or leave them in the comments section. The topic range is broad, so don’t hesitate with your ideas.
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