Automotive engineer Ralph Teetor invented cruise control in the 1940s. Originally limited to luxury vehicles, this speed control technology has become a standard feature providing greater ease in driving, safety, as well as fuel efficiency benefits.
Teetor was born in 1890 in Hagerstown, Indiana. When he was just 5, one of his eyes was injured in an accident with a knife, and within a year, he had completely lost his sight in both eyes. Never letting his condition deter him from his interests and ambitions, he developed a heightened sense of touch that would ultimately benefit him throughout his career.
At his family’s business, Perfect Circle Corp., his father and uncles trained him to be a machinist at a young age. At just 12, Teetor demonstrated exceptional skills and creativity when he designed and built a 3 hp motor car capable of reaching a speed of 12 mph. He later furthered his skills by studying mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1912, becoming the first blind engineer on record in the United States.
As lead engineer at Perfect Circle, he helped improve the company’s designs and became known for his extraordinary sense of touch and memory. He was assistant engineer from 1919 until 1937, when he became vice president of engineering, and was appointed president in 1946. During his presidency, the company expanded globally, selling its products in 91 countries worldwide. Teetor became chairman of the company in 1957 and served until 1963.
The inspiration for the invention that would become cruise control came to Teetor in 1936 as a passenger in a car driven by Harry Lindsey, his friend and patent attorney. Lindsey had a tendency to vary his speed during conversation, speeding up or slowing down depending on whether he or Teetor was speaking. To address these inconsistencies, Teetor started developing a device to control automotive speed. In 1948, he filed his first speed control device patent. A speed selector on the dashboard was connected along the drive shaft to a mechanism in the engine compartment. By holding the gas pedal steady, the device maintained the driver’s selected speed.
Manufactured by Perfect Circle and trademarked as the “Speedostat,” it was first introduced in Chrysler cars including the 1958 Imperial, New Yorker and Windsor luxury models. Chrysler marketed the feature under the name "Auto-Pilot." In 1959, Chrysler offered it as an option on all its models. Ward’s Automotive Reports reviewed the new device and stated, “Auto-Pilot is a most remarkable invention. It vies with anything that has ever evolved through the long years of automotive history.” In 1959, Cadillac offered the speed control device and called it “Cruise Control,” the popular name now recognized throughout the world.
Serving as president of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), Teetor became an influential supporter of automotive education. SAE International recognized his contributions by naming one of its most prestigious engineering awards after him – the Ralph R. Teetor Educational Award was established in 1963.
Throughout his life, Teetor, who was granted over 40 U.S. patents, demonstrated an unwavering drive to learn, build and invent. He also encouraged the same confidence and persistence in others. When visiting with blind World War II veterans in 1945 at Valley Forge General Hospital, a military hospital near Philadelphia, Teetor told them, “Remember, you are not handicapped so long as you can think logically. Many times, during the past forty-nine years, people have told me how sorry they were that I am handicapped. My answer to them has always been, that I am not handicapped, because I have never considered myself so.”