auto-pilot

They say that “necessity is the mother of invention,” and never was that more true than for Ralph Teetor. The circumstances of his invention were of overwhelming necessity…to say the least. Teetor was blind, and because of that, he was forced to accept rides to wherever he chose to go. His friend, Harry Lindsay, who didn’t mind driving Teetor around, but who also had a notoriously “jerky accelerator foot.” Teetor couldn’t figure out why, Lindsay couldn’t keep the car at a consistent speed. When you think about it, a car that is being driven in a jerky manner would be a bit scary for a blind passenger, who has no idea why they might be possible stopping suddenly… or even if it just seems like they are stopping suddenly.

For Teetor, the possibility of things changing was impossible. He was not going to magically get his sight back, so something else had to change. Teetor was no stranger to the idea of inventing things. At the age of five, he endured a terrible accident, which left him in his disabled condition. He was incredibly young age, but Teetor refused to allow an accident to keep 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 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.”

Teetor set out to solve his problem. He invented what we know today as the automobile cruise control system, which is an outer control loop that “takes over” control of the throttle…a task normally exercised by the driver through the accelerator pedal. Unlike the driver of the vehicle, the cruise control holds the vehicle speed steady at a set value. The invention worked perfectly on the first try, but being a perfectionist, Teetor spent the next decade tinkering with his design. By 1958, he had finally perfected his invention. Nevertheless, Cadillac began rolling it out in all of their cars by 1950. The only part of his invention that 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 designers at Chrysler came up with “cruise control.” It wasn’t flashy, but it was also less likely to be mistaken for “a kitchen appliance.” Teetor decided that sacrifices just had to be made sometimes. So now you know that the cruise control…the gas-conserving savior of long-distance drivers everywhere, actually came from one man’s pet peeve. I would imagine that if you were blind, and being thrown around in your seat because you couldn’t drive yourself, you might be pretty grouchy, too.

Chris in VegasWhat makes a hero? Is it untold bravery in the face of certain death, or is it simply being in the right place at the right time? Yesterday, my grandson, Chris found himself in just such a position. A position that would put Chris between a classmate and death. Chris was in his swimming class, and they were practicing life saving maneuvers. They had brought in another physical education class to help with their life saving class. The students had been told that there was going to be a mock drowning situation and they were going to perform the rescue, and in a perfect world, that is how the exercise would have proceeded. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world.

The students were all in the water, and Chris noticed a young man who seemed tired and was not swimming very fast. He watched him for a moment, and then his attention was drawn elsewhere. Suddenly someone yelled out in panic from the side of the pool. Chris turned and saw that the young man was under the water and thrashing about. He immediately went into action, performing the maneuvers he had been taught as if on auto-pilot. He brought the young man to the pool’s edge, coughing and sputtering, but alive, and unharmed. We asked Chris what everyone had said afterward, expecting to give him a moment to bask in the glory and admiration that surely followed his heroic act, but in true Chris style, he pretty much blew it off with a simple and humble, “They said good job.” Typical of a hero to act like they didn’t do anything special, when we all know they did.

When Chris told us about the events that transpired at school, I was taken back to my youth. We went swimming every weekday at the Kelly Walsh pool in Casper. I had been going up there for several years, and I had finally reached the great height of 5 feet. To me that meant that I could go into the deep end of the pool, and I went and jumped in, and not right at the edge. When the realization hit me that the water was also 5 feet, putting it at the top of my head, I was already in trouble. As I thrashed around trying to find the edge, I thought I was going to die. Then I came up out of the water gasping for air and saw a girl swimming by. I coughed out the word “help” and she pushed me to the edge of the pool, and once I was there, she simply went on her way. To this day, I can see her face, even though I don’t know her name and could not thank her. I went back to the shallow water…grateful to be alive, and taught myself to swim, because I was never going to be in that position again. Still I would never forget the girl who saved my life.

As I thought about my grandson, who found himself in a position to be that person who saved the life of another person, I knew that he is a true hero. I knew exactly how the young man Chris saved will feel about that event for the rest of his life. It is very hard to forget the face of the person who saw you in a death struggle, and then reached in and pulled you out of death’s grip to safety again. What makes a hero? I know, and I think that young man in Chris’ swimming class yesterday knows too.

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