Welcome to the second installment of Retrobituaries! DB Grady's new column looks back at the lives of interesting (but not crazy famous) people who are no longer with us.
You might not know Jack Cover, but you’re probably familiar with the Taser, a device he invented to help stop airplane hijackings. (He didn’t think sky marshals firing bullets in an airplane at 30,000 feet was such a good idea.) But his contributions didn’t stop there, and the next time you resist arrest, you can tell the cops not only where the Taser they’re using came from, but also a little about the man who created it. Here is a look at the life of John “Jack” Higson Cover, Jr.
He was influenced by Victor Appleton.
In 1910, publisher Stratemeyer Syndicate released the first in a series of novels featuring an intrepid young boy named Tom Swift who used science to solve mysteries. These books have inspired generations of budding scientists, from Steve Wozniak to Isaac Asimov. Interestingly, there is no such person as Victor Appleton, who is credited as the series author. The books were actually ghostwritten by several men and women, but always under the name Victor Appleton.
In the case of Jack Cover, when he needed to name his newest invention, he recalled his childhood inspiration, and called the device “Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle,” or, abbreviated, TASER.
He helped put the first man on the moon.
In the early 1960s, Jack Cover was the chief scientist at North American Aviation, an aerospace engineering and manufacturing firm. His work would lead to an enduring relationship with a new government agency called NASA. Among North American Aviation’s most notable contributions to the space program are the second stage of the Saturn V rocket, and the Apollo Command/Service Module.
He had no fear.
If there is a list of really, really dangerous jobs out there, “test pilot” has to be somewhere near the top. A test pilot’s job basically entails climbing into the cockpit of an experimental aircraft and pushing the throttle all the way forward. The thing about experimental aircraft is that you never knew whether it would fall apart or explode or crash or what. If you knew for certain that a plane wouldn’t suddenly fall out of the sky, you wouldn’t be a test pilot. You would just be a pilot. Anyway, that was Jack Cover’s job with the Army Air Forces during World War II. Later, he served at the Inyokern Naval Ordnance Test Station. Have you ever lit the fuse of a bottle rocket only to have it explode immediately, stinging your hand? That’s what you do at military ordnance test stations, only instead of tiny firecrackers, you’re working with giant bombs, and instead of stinging your hand, you’re vaporized.
While we’re on the subject of World War II and giant bombs: I’m not saying there is a direct link between the atomic bomb and the Taser, but...
THERE IS A DIRECT LINK BETWEEN THE TASER AND THE ATOMIC BOMB.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Jack Cover is basically the Chuck Norris of scientists. (Probably said at the time: “When Jack Cover jumps in a swimming pool, he doesn’t get wet; the water gets Jack Cover.”) So of course he didn’t just enroll in college and learn from ordinary tenure-chasing physics professors. While earning his PhD, he was taught by Enrico Fermi, who had previously won the Nobel Prize in Physics for "demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons.” As if that weren’t enough, Cover was also taught by Edward Teller, who was notable for predicting the Jahn–Teller effect, and later, the Brunauer–Emmett–Teller isotherm.
Also, Teller is the father of the hydrogen bomb, and Fermi is often called the father of the atomic bomb.
With such a pedigree, we’re probably lucky that Jack Cover stopped with a ranged stun gun.
Image courtesy of Inc.com.