In 1945, automotive engineer Ralph Teetor was responsible for creating the technology we now know as Cruise Control – one of the first steps towards autonomous vehicles. He accomplished this and many other innovations without the benefit of sight.
Born in Hagerstown, Indiana, in 1890, Teetor had normal vision until one day, his hand slipped while working with a knife. The blade penetrated his eye and within a year, he was completely blind. However, Teetor never let his condition define him. He quickly developed a highly refined sense of touch; a trait that would benefit him greatly throughout his career.
His father and uncles trained him to be a machinist, and by age 13, Teetor managed to build an automobile of his own design that was capable of traveling 25 mph. Teetor graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1912 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
He eventually joined the family business, Perfect Circle Corporation, as lead engineer. Teetor helped refine and improve the company’s designs, and his sense of touch soon became legendary around the factory. His daughter once recalled a story about him feeling some new castings and remarking that they didn’t vary by more than .002 inch. The castings were measured, proving Teetor was correct.
Teetor’s driver had a habit of varying his speed based on whether or not he was speaking, which caused inconsistencies. In response, Teetor began working on an automotive speed control device. He received a patent for the “Speedostat” in 1945. The device was later renamed “Cruise Control,” and eventually it became a standard feature in nearly all automobiles.
In 1946, he was named president of the company. Under Teetor, Perfect Circle became one of the first automotive suppliers to market its products through motorsports and also became a major defense contractor. Later in life, he also invented a fluid-operated gearshift mechanism that he sold to Bendix Corporation.
Teetor served as president of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and became an influential supporter of automotive education. SAE International recognized Teetor’s contributions by naming one of their most prestigious engineering awards after him. He often said, “You are not handicapped so long as you can think logically,” and was a significant figure in the industry who was able to see innovations that others could not.