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.
I think most of us have, at one time or another, watched a car race, be it locally, NASCAR, or maybe even street racing…the illegal kind. We might have even raced some ourselves, because when a kid gets behind the wheel of a car, they tend to want to show off a little bit. I suppose it’s the thrill of the race, and feeling the speed of the car beneath you…whether it’s safe or not. Still, most of us don’t tend to get our cars going as fast as the real racecar drivers do. I don’t know about you, but I think that for most of us, going at some of the NASCAR speeds, in real life, is pretty insane. Those drivers are specially trained, and even then, some have been killed or severely injured in bad crashes during those races. As for me, I think I’ll leave the racing to the professionals.
Not all professionals are what you would expect, however. Yesterday, October 11, 2008 marked a very interesting day in the world of speed. On that day, a speed record was set. A man named Luc Costermans, from Belgium set a world speed record driving 192 miles per hour in a borrowed Lamborghini. What? You are sure the record is much higher than that. Well, you would be right, if we are talking about a sighted driver…but, we are not. Luc Costermans is completely blind!! I’m sure that you were as shocked as I was, but let me tell you that he is not the only blind speed racer. Luc Costermans’ record breaking run was performed on a long, straight stretch of airstrip near Marseilles, France. He was accompanied by a carload of sophisticated navigational equipment, as well as a human co-pilot, who gave directions from the Lamborghini’s passenger seat. How fast would you have to be able to give directions to correct a course error for a blind man traveling at 192 miles per hour? Seriously, I don’t know if the co-pilot was very brave, or simply insane!!
To add to the amazing nature of blind speed racing, Costermans is not the first one, and will not likely be the last. The record Costermans broke belonged to Mike Newman, who was a British driver, and who set his record exactly three years to the day before Costermans. Newman had coaxed his 507 horsepower BMW M5 to a top speed of 178.5 mph. For his part, Newman had smashed a 2 year old record 144.7 mph…that he had set himself in a borrowed Jaguar, just three days after he learned to drive. Unlike Costermans, Newman did not race with a co-pilot or a navigator. Instead, he got his father-in-law to zoom around the track behind him, shouting directions over the radio…what??? My mind was racing by this time. Again came the thought of how fast would his father-in-law have to be talking, and then, the thought that his father-in-law was also driving that fast. Was he a racecar driver too? I can’t imagine my father-in-law would have ever driven that fast. He would have asked me if I was insane.
Both of these blind record-setters are serious competitors who race all sorts of vehicles. In 2001, Newman became the fastest blind motorcycle driver in the world, with a record speed of 89 mph, set just four days after learning to ride. Five years later, Costermans flew a small airplane all around France. He was joined by an instructor and a navigator. Another record-setter, an Englishman named Steve Cunningham, had set the land-speed record himself in 1999, traveling 147 mph, while driving a Chrysler Viper, at the same time that he held the sea-speed record for a blind sailor. In 2004, guided by sophisticated talking navigational software, Cunningham became the first blind pilot to circumnavigate the United Kingdom by air. These men have taken record setting to new levels. I can’t imagine trying these stunts, but then I guess I’m not them.
As a young girl, I read a book about Helen Keller. I became very interested in her life. She was truly inspirational to me. It wasn’t really about the fact that she was deaf, blind, and mute, but rather about how she overcame all of those obstacles to become a really great woman in history. Of course, the truth is that without another girl who was losing her own sight, Helen Keller might well have gone on with her life in the almost barbaric way she was being allowed to grow up. Helen’s family had no idea how to raise her. In fact, they had no idea what to do with her at all. She was completely out of control. She threw tantrums when she didn’t get her way. She ate off of everyone’s plates…completely destroying the meal that was on there until she found what she wanted, and then moving on to the next plate. I’m sure that there was never a peaceful meal in that house, much less a peaceful day. Every time Helen didn’t like how things were going, the screaming began, and the family cringed.
It all started when she was a little baby. She had a very bad fever. They weren’t sure Helen would survive. Nevertheless, she did, but the damage was done. Before long they realized that she couldn’t hear, or see, and the few words she had learned soon left her, because she was locked inside herself. She was living in quiet darkness. The only things she knew were the smells of her family, food cooking, and her way around the house. Her parents felt sorry for her, so they gave her what she wanted. Soon all it took to make them give in, was a tantrum, but Helen was getting older, and she was out of control. In fact, when her younger sister was born, she dumped her out of a cradle that she wanted to use for her doll. Her parents decided that something had to be done, or she would have to be placed in a home for the mentally insane.
In a last ditch effort, they hired Annie Sullivan, who was a teacher and losing her sight too. She could teach, and she was stubborn. Both were things Helen needed desperately. It was no easy task, but really by trial and error, Annie developed a way to get things across to the girl. She used finger spelling into Helens hand. But she couldn’t talk to her, so she had to keep doing the same things until it finally clicked. On that amazing day, Helen’s real education could begin. It had been a long struggle, including fighting Helen’s family, but Annie won, and that meant Helen won. She went on to be a successful author and later a speaker. Helen learned the sounds by feeling Annie’s throat. She was truly an amazing woman. Today is the 136th anniversary of Helen Keller’s birth. She passed away on June 1, 1968.
The moonless night was dark, quiet, and peaceful. The children were tucked in their beds in the trailer, while their parents, my sister, Alena Stevens and her husband, Mike sat outside by the campfire. It had been a beautiful day on vacation. They love camping, and this was the perfect ending to a perfect day. After sitting by the campfire for a while, they decided that it was time to go to bed. They tip toed into the trailer, where the candle in the sink that Alena had left burning for a night light for the kids had burned itself out, leaving the trailer very dark. They climbed into bed, and started to drift off to sleep. Suddenly the quiet was shattered as their ten year old son, Garrett sat up and yelled, “I’m blind!!” To which my sister said, “No you’re not. It’s just dark. Go back to sleep.” I’m sure it was all she could do to hold back the giggles that were bubbling up inside her. I know it would be hard for me.
This was not the first time Garrett would do some goofy thing, nor would it be the last. When Garrett was about three or four, he decided that he wanted to ride a big boy bicycle, so his parents got him a two wheeler and put training wheels on it. Garrett was floating on air. He loved riding around on the bike. That didn’t mean, however, that he was in any hurry to get rid of the training wheels, because he wasn’t. Garrett rode around on that bike with training wheels for quite a while…so long, in fact that eventually, one of the training wheels fell off. Even then, Garrett didn’t feel the need to take off the other training wheel. No, he rode around on three wheels until the other training wheel broke off, probably during a leaning turn that only a kid who doesn’t need training wheels can make. And so it was that Garrett learned that he didn’t need training wheels, and probably hadn’t for some time.
Not all of Garrett’s antics were on his own, of course. His sisters, Michelle and Lacey got in on some of them too. I’m sure you think you know what to do with a sleeping bag, but you would be wrong. A sleeping bag isn’t just for sleeping. No, it makes a perfect sled too. The three kids used to get on the sleeping bags and slide down the stairs in the classic style of the Home Alone movies. The biggest problem was that unlike the Home Alone movie, where McCauley Calkin used the sled and went right out the front door, their stairs ended with a wall a very short distance away. Nevertheless, the fun continued until one of the kids hit the wall a little too hard and ended up crying. Then Alena had to make them stop.
Those days of being a silly little boy are long gone now, but Garrett is still a joker in any way he can think up. I guess some things will never change…or will they. These days Garrett is busy making plans of a different kind. He is ready to take the next big step in his life, as he and his fiancée, Kayla Smiley plan their wedding to take place some time next summer. Their marriage, however, will probably not change Garrett’s funny side. While Garrett is the kind of man who is always ready to help whenever he is needed, he also still loves to pull pranks and other jokes on people whenever he can. I’m quite sure that they will never have a dull moment in their lives together. Today is Garrett’s birthday. Happy birthday Garrett!! Have a great day!! We love you!!