Ralph R. Teetor: Blind Automotive Engineer

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Learn about the man who invented cruise control and so much more…

In many lists of little-known automotive historical facts is often included a tidbit about the engineer who invented cruise control was actually blind. Yeah, that seems pretty incredible, but that’s where the info about Ralph R. Teetor begins and ends for most. That’s sad, because the life Teetor lived was inspirational and rich as he left an indelible mark on the automotive industry which extended far beyond just the creation of cruise control.

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Teetor wasn’t born blind. Instead, he spent part of his childhood in Victorian rural Indiana with the full use of all his senses. However, an accident with a knife at the age of five left him completely blind. His deeply religious parents didn’t allow Ralph to feel sorry for himself, an attitude he adopted himself. Pulling himself up by his bootstraps, the boy learned to do what everyone else who could see did, including driving a car and attending college. There was no shortage of doubters, although they were quickly won over once they saw Teetor in action.

From a young age, Ralph had an intense interest in the work his father and uncles performed as they created maintenance cars for the railroad lines. He learned to work lathes, grinders, and other dangerous machines in the shop without serious injury. In fact, after a while many of the men remarked how the blind boy was more proficient with their tools of trade than them.

Ralph further proved his wherewithal in college, which he completed with the help of a cousin. However, life took him back to the family business, which had transitioned to making components for automobiles. Because the business started to focus mainly on piston rings, the name was changed to Perfect Circle, a brand you might recognize.

Just by listening to an engine, Ralph Teetor could correctly diagnose a mechanical problem. He was famous for this, resulting in his working with a number of people in the automotive industry to diagnose issues, including motorsports teams. You could say he was a car whisperer of sorts.

Of course, Ralph Teetor’s most famous contribution to the automotive industry was the invention of cruise control. It was the fuel and tire rationing during WWII which was enforced by a national speed limit of 35 mph that originally got him thinking of how to help people maintain a constant speed over long distances. In the early days, the “Speedostat” (Ralph hated the name “cruise control” as suggested by Cadillac later) featured a dashboard-mounted speed selector. Once the vehicle achieved the selected speed, a governor overcame spring tension to actuate a vacuum-driven piston, which in turn would push against the gas pedal. The patent for this amazing invention was filed in 1945, but it wasn’t until the oil crisis of the 1970s that it really caught on. With a national speed limit put in place to help conserve fuel and law enforcement vigorously enforcing it, people clamored for the device which would keep them out of trouble.

Many other patents were filed by Ralph R. Teetor, including one for a hydraulic automatic transmission, an improved piston for controlling heat expansion, a mechanism for dynamically balancing steam turbines in US Navy ships, a pistol-grip fishing pole handle, an easier-to-use doorknob, a better lawn mower, an easier-to-use door lock, and a suitcase which fit more clothes without wrinkling them. His daughter testified he was always tinkering in the basement at night, with the lights off, as his mind worked on all kinds of problems. The man had an unceasing desire to improve the quality of life for everyone around him, which he did.

Throughout his life, Ralph Teetor counseled many other blind people, including war veterans who lost their site in service to their country. He always told them to not feel sorry for themselves and to work smart as well as hard, that in so doing they could accomplish great things in their life. The man absolutely practiced what he preached as he didn’t let his lack of sight hold in back in the least.

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