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Cruise Control

July 30, 2002

A public radio commentary

Successful engineers think in images. Their minds occupy a nonverbal world, not easily reducible to words. It is this kind of thinking that Ralph Teetor, the inventor of cruise control, had in spades. What makes his story remarkable is that he was blind.

After losing his sight at age five, he developed an exceptional ability to visulize objects and distances. For example, Ralph had helped build and install the basketball hoops at his high school and this was enough for him to be able to amaze his friends by sinking basket after basket. And at his father's shop, Teetor learned to create things perfectly out of wood or metal. So remarkable was his prowess with tools that by age ten his father built him a workshop, outfitted with grinders, lathes, and drills.

After high school, Teetor decided to become an engineer. But because 1906 was not as enlightened as today, many colleges refused to even consider his 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.

1921, he invented the automatic transmission, although he was too far ahead of his time; it only appeared years later when his patent had expired. Teetor invented a new fishing rod and reel because his wrist grew tired from fly fishing; he also designed and patented new locks. All, of course, without a drawing of any sort - just images in his mind. The one invention that he timed perfectly was cruise control. During World War Two, the government set a speed limit of 35 miles per hour to conserve gas and rubber tires. Most motorists found it difficult and boring to travel long distances at such a slow speed. He claimed, though, that he'd never have worked on it except for his patent attorney. The attorney's jerky driving made Teetor car sick.

The first cruise controls were elaborate mechanical devices that required every bit of Ralph's ability to visual objects and distances. By 1960 every major auto manufacturer had added this feature to their cars, and with the Energy Crisis of the early 1970s, cruise control became a permanent fixture.

What was the secret to Teetor's success? 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."

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises