Cruise Control's Humorous And Unbelievable History
An automobile cruise control system is an outer control loop that "takes over" control of the throttle - normally exercised by the driver through the accelerator pedal - and holds the vehicle speed steady at a set value. Source: (HERWIG VERGULT/AFP/Getty
The origin of inventions remains a fascinating subject for anyone who enjoys the strange twists of history. For instance, the most popular soft drink in the world and a multi-billion dollar company started with a man looking to kick his addiction to morphine. That's right: Coca-Cola, purveyor of just about every sugary drink in America, was born when John Stith Pemberton became addicted to painkillers after suffering a grievous injury during the Battle of Columbus.
The irony of Coke inevitably becoming a vice for millions of Americans decades later is not lost on historians with a sense of humor. As the saying goes, "necessity is the mother of invention." However, sometimes irony and happenstance take turns playing a hand in delivering the children of invention as well. One such example from the past is cruise control.
From the Mind of an Annoyed Genius
Cruise control, the gas-conserving savior of long-distance drivers everywhere, actually came from one man's pet peeve. The inventor, Ralph Teetor, became annoyed by the inability of his friend and frequent driver, Harry Lindsay, to maintain a constant speed. Lest you think this was a first world problem, Teetor was blind, necessitating some friendly assistance in getting around, and Lindsay had a notoriously "jerky accelerator foot." If you were being thrown around in your seat because you couldn't drive yourself, you'd be pretty grouchy, too.
A Silver Lining from a Terrible Accident
At the age of five, cruise control inventor Ralph Teetor endured a terrible accident, which left him in his disabled condition. Despite his incredibly young age, however, Teetor refused to allow the calamity to deter him from living a full life. At age 12, he was featured in the December 21, 1902 edition of the New York Herald for building a one-cylinder car to scoot around in his neighborhood. Here is how the Herald described him, and yes, people really did speak this way in 1902:
“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.”
A Genius on the Rise
Teetor's capacity for engineering wasn't limited to building one cylinder go-carts. He quickly graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in mechanical engineering, and along the way, he created the turbine technology that was eventually installed in the torpedo boats used in World War I. He then went to work for his family's company, the Light Inspection Car Company of Hagerstown. He rapidly moved up in the ranks of the company until he became president, at which point he got a driver license.
Cruise Control for the World
The initial version did the job, but naturally, Teetor tinkered with his design for a decade. By 1958, he had perfected his invention, and Cadillac began rolling it out in all of their cars by 1950. The only element Teetor ever struggled with was the name.
At first, the invention was known by a host of names more suited for the Wiley Coyote: Speedostat, Touchomatic, and Auto-pilot. Eventually, the creatives at Chrysler came up with "cruise control." It was less exciting, but it was also less likely to be mistaken for a kitchen appliance. Sacrifices just have to be made sometimes.
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