Under Control

cruise control
The setting to save millions of litres of fuel.

In October of 2015, it was the first time when an unlicensed driver got behind the wheel of a driving vehicle and believe me when I say, it was legal. This person was Steve Mahan, the Executive Director of California's Santa Clara Valley Blind Center. In late 2011, Steve Mahan told the engineers at Google that he would like to be the "first unlicensed driver" to get behind the wheel of the self-driving vehicle then under development by the company. This became a reality in 2015 at Austin, Texas. The car didn't have any steering wheel or pedals. When asked how the experience was, he said, "Just perfectly normal."1 This statement is a massive indication of the leaps the technology has taken in the automotive sector.

I know that self-driving cars are still something to be achieved for mass production, with Tesla being an exception. But that is a story for another article. The roots of the driver's assistance can be traced back to the 1940s. Back then, a mechanical engineer with some super senses saw a problem no one else did, and the rest is history.

The story that I want to share this week is about a mechanical engineer at heart. This engineer with super senses did wonders. He had his fair bit of struggles, but the legacy he left is still saving millions of litres of fuel. So without further delay, let's get into it.

Childhood opportunity

In the 1890s, the world was getting a boom of technology as the industrial revolution was about to end. In that period a natural thinker was born by the name of Ralph Teetor. Five years later, an accident occurred, and Ralph lost his sight.2 (Woah, I don't think you expected that!) But Ralph didn't like to talk about this with anyone. And so no one around him treated him differently. At a very young age, his father noticed his aptitude for building things that lead to Ralph having a workshop by the age of ten. When he wanted to get into a college for education, many universities rejected him. But Ralph kept trying and ultimately secured a place in the University of Pennsylvania. He eventually became what he wanted to be: a Mechanical Engineer.

Ralph Teetor
Teetor (left) with General Motors automotive executive Ed Cole (image: Automotive Hall of Fame)

After completing his studies, Ralph worked to dynamically balance steam turbines for the U.S. Navy ships and also Indy 500 racing cars. He was aided in part by his superpower, the highly developed sense of touch. Ever innovating, he invented an early version of the powered lawn mower, locking mechanisms and other devices. Ralph eventually returned to his hometown in Indiana, where he started working in the family’s vehicular manufacturing and supply business: The Perfect Circle. It has a long history of working on bicycles, trains and cars. Over the years, Ralph rose up through the ranks and went on to become the president of this growing company, overseeing nearly three thousand employees. He even let the company become one of the prime defence contractors during World War II. Meanwhile, though, he continued to work on his own designs and had an idea that would take vehicles in a new direction.

The mother of invention

Storytime! Once Ralph was riding in the car with his patent attorney, who would drive him wherever he wanted to. During the journey, they both loved talking about new ideas and whether they could be patented or not. But there was one thing that Ralph hated about these conversations. The attorney used to press the throttle harder when listening and would cruise while talking. Ralph's superpower was sensing a lot of disturbance in the force.1

Speedostat patent
Ralph Teetor's 1950 patent named as "Speed Control Device For Resisting Operation of the Accelerator"

One day he had his eureka moment. He thought of a way to stabilise the throttle system in the intake of the internal combustion engine. By this, the car will not go fast or slow while the driver has a conversation. He finally patented the idea in 1945. They called it Speedostat after rejecting Controlmatic, Touchomatic and Pressomatic. Which in my opinion were some fantastic names!

Drastic times call for prototype measures

Surprising to many, this wasn't the first time someone had tried to think of speed-controlling technology. There are other examples, though limited, used in early automobiles and even earlier to manage steam engines. But the design that Ralph thought of was something that brought the companies to adopt cruise control.

Speedostat Brochure
The Speedostat. (image: 99% Invisible)3

The first prototype of the design featured a dashboard control with a governor mechanism that pushed back on the gas pedal to slow the car down. The way he tested it was spectacular. Ralph pushed the pedal all the way to the floor, and a sighted person steered the vehicle. Imagine the scenario! It must be like those car chase scenes in movies in which the driver goes unconscious. But there was still an issue with this design. This version only helped slow a car, and not keep it at a constant speed. Ralph later added "speed lock" functionality using an electromagnetic motor, to keep the vehicle at one steady pace until the brake pedal was tapped.

Fish for development

The cruise control was a massive success, and other car manufacturers wanted it in their cars. In 1958, Chrysler started to put "auto-pilot" in their luxury cars. Although it was just an add-on, the success of it led them to roll out the Speedostat more broadly. It was General Motors who gave the design a new name. A name that we still use today: "Cruise Control." In the 1970s, with spiking gas prices driven by oil embargos, this novel feature became an essential component for American automobiles. The technology helped save over 15,000,000 litres of oil a day at the time.3 Which is insane! The video below shows the mechanics of how it actually works and saves fuel.

By this point, The Perfect Circle had been sold, but Ralph's influence stuck around. He became the president of Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). He even received two honorary degrees: Doctor of Engineering at the Indiana Institute of Technology and the Doctor of Laws at Earlham College. Six years after his death, he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1988.4

Your turn now

Imagine the effect of a man being nauseated because of his amazing senses. He saw a problem that no one else probably even noticed. He solved it with a simple design and saved millions of litres of fuel. I think he truly is what a mechanical engineer should be.

I have learnt a lot about him recently, and I want to do something as impactful as Ralph Teetor did with his curious mind. If you also want to learn more about people like Ralph or simply read about more stories of these invisible geniuses, why not subscribe to the blog? And if you are really into it, follow us on social media. Trust me, it will be worth it! Feel free to share this article with your friends and family to show them how awesome you are!

See you next Saturday! Cheers!

  1. Reddit:r/theinvisiblegenius
  2. Instagram: @theinvisiblegenius
  3. Twitter: @notnitinchopra

Reference links

  1. The Sightless Visionary Who Invented Cruise Control | Innovation | Smithsonian Magazine
  2. "Ralph Teetor:A Biography". Society of Automotive Engineers International.
  3. Speed Lock: The Blind Engineer Who Brought Cruise Control to Modern Cars - 99% Invisible.
  4. "Ralph Teetor". Automotive Hall of Fame.


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