Praise for the blind man who invented cruise control

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THE INVENTION: Cruise control's that (wonderful, wonderful) thing that helps you avoid speeding tickets. Yup, everybody loves cruise control. Unlike many of the other ignored inventions, this handy accessory does get some acknowledgement. Unfortunately, that's only when it's either impossible to find on that little stick that turns on the blinkers, or when it's broken.

WHO TO THANK: a blind man. No, seriously! His name's Ralph Teetor, and he spent his whole life inventing things to make cars better. Teetor was blinded in a shop accident at age five, but apparently harbored no resentment for sharp tools. He went on to attend college and became one of the most respected mechanical engineers of his era. Although he was responsible for a lot of vehicular improvements, including automatic transmission, he's best known for making it possible for even lead-foots to stick to one speed. Inspiration struck during World War II, when the government set a 35 mph speed limit to conserve gas and tires—which is great and all, but some people just can't drive 35. Like, for instance, Teetor's lawyer. After a particularly bad trip during which the lawyer's jerky driving made Teetor carsick, the inventor came up with a device that could regulate car speed without the driver touching the gas pedal. A few tweaks and many dubious names (including "controlomatic" and "speedostat") later, cruise control premiered in selected 1958 Chrysler models. It was then an $86 option known as "Auto-Pilot."

BUT THE TRULY AMAZING THING IS THAT:
Teetor's blindness actually improved his ability to invent new things. In the process of learning how to function in a world he couldn't see, he developed an exceptional ability to visualize objects and guide himself via touch. In 1902, he built an automobile that let him tool around town at up to 25 mph. A neat feat by itself, but he was only 12 at the time. Later, he applied his skills to engineering and was able to solve problems sighted engineers couldn't. During World War I, he developed a new technique for balancing steam turbines on torpedo boat destroyers. Other engineers had tried for years to solve the problem, but Teetor's heightened sense of touch gave him the advantage. His expertise was so well known that he later became president of the Society of Automotive Engineers.

--note-- if you liked this entry, it's thanks to Maggie Koerth and her wonderful Inventions Cover story. I believe that issue's sold out, but other back issues of the floss are available at our online store.

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June 25, 2007 - 5:06am
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