Whenever we use cruise control to stretch our legs on the highway, we would either ransack the steering area in search of the button like a ‘blind’ man, or use the stalk out of familiarity without even actually looking at it. Modern cars have just few buttons/ stalk, we hardly notice them while driving. But what is dumbfounding is that the guy who was behind this device, Ralph Teetor, was never ever able to see or use it! Nor did he ever drove a car in his lifetime! He was a blind since age of five, but his ‘vision’ as an engineer for better auto-mechanics inducted him into the Automotive Hall of fame in Michigan. We owe him a lot!
We realise how common cruise control system are in today’s automobiles, from costly bikes to cars to buses and trucks. But yes, in India we have very few cars below 10 lakhs to feature a cruise control and is a very recent tech, unlike Europe, US or any other big markets on the globe. Though the speed governing systems were in place long before cars arrived, the modern cruise control is attributed to prolific American inventor and mechanical engineer Ralph Teetor, a blind man who preferred never to discuss his disability. I wonder what sort of brainy guy he was, to have such a command on mechanics so as to develop his own systems, without eye sight!
He started working on developing a system to control speed was inspired from his annoying experience of being driven by his lawyer in a car. Some drivers have this really frustrating practice of accelerating erratically while doing something else sitting on the wheels – while eating, conversing, or prance attune to music or whatever! If at all you happen to be riding with them, it would be maddening. His lawyer was of that kind, he would slow down while talking to Ralph and step-on gas while listening. Infuriated Ralph didn’t shout at him or advice him (as most of us would!!), but was determined to device a mechanism to escape from those jerky rides.
After working for almost a decade, Ralph Teetor received his first patent on his device in 1945, earlier known as “Speedostat”. However, his device was used commercially only years after in 1958 Chrysler Imperial, which was advertised as featuring “Auto-Pilot” technology. It was actually Chrysler who make the term “cruise control” popular. By 1960s, the system was a standard feature on all Cadillacs. Teetor’s model reckoned the ground speeds based on driveshaft rotations and used a bi-directional screw-drive electric motor to vary throttle position as needed. This was the first mass marketed design that ruled the industry for a decade, until GM made such changes to it. In 1968, Daniel Aaron Wisner invented Electronic Cruise Control with digital memory, and soon the magic of electronics changed the course of the auto industry. We now have adaptive cruise controls, which is nothing bus an improved tech with automatic braking and retarders, and the technology is still moving ahead with new developments.
Ralph Teetor, while heading an auto parts firm, The Perfect Circle Co.,worked on other inventions too. An early gas powered lawn mower, a new kind of fishing rod handle with utmost utility and comfort, and lock mechanisms were his other inventions. His phenomenal sense of touch helped him in developing a technique for balancing steam turbine rotors used in torpedo-boat destroyers. In fact, as early at the age of 12, he went on to develop a single-cylinder car with his cousin, from a scrap engine. New York Herald, dated December 21, 1902 reports this way:
“A constructor of miniature dynamos and other machinery at 10 and thoroughly versed in all that pertains to their operation, and at 12 the builder of an automobile that carries him about the streets of his native town and far out upon the country roads at a speed of from 18 to 25 miles an hour, is the remarkable record of Ralph Teetor of Hagerstown, Indiana.“
In 1936, Ralph Teetor became the president of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) in the United States. In 1963, he endowed the SAE’s Ralph R. Teetor Educational Award which is awarded annually to stimulate “contacts between younger engineering educators and practicing engineers in industry and government”, according to SAE.
What is really admirable while reading on his life is they way he dismissed his disability. He has managed to live his life almost as if his accident that robbed his vision had never happened, and went on to become successful as an engineer, manufacturing executive and entrepreneur. We all have to salute him for his determination and mental ability to comprehend the complex engineering systems and mechanics so as to develop new ones. Blindness has nothing to do with eyes, but more to do with mind he teaches us. We owe him for his idea behind today’s luxurious cruise control feature, but also equally for making us realise our true blindness!
Also Read: Henry Ford: 150 Years
Photo Credit: Volkswagen UK, Hemmings.com