A Brief History of Cruise Control
A Brief History of Cruise Control
Posted on July 20, 2016
Let’s play a quick game shall we?
When do you think cruise control was invented?
Don’t worry about being right or wrong, because, if we’re honest, when we set out to blog about the history of cruise control we probably would have felt comfortable suggesting it was somewhere in the vicinity of the 1950s.
Why? Well, as cruise control isn’t a universally accepted or installed feature even on the most recent generation of vehicles it seemed unlikely that it would be more than, really, a few decades old.
After all, when you consider the fact that airbags were created back in 1941 through 1951 and weren’t made mandatory in vehicles until 1989 it was a logical assumption that non-safety-related technology like cruise control would see a slower adoption process.
So, Where Did it All Come From?
It’s certainly a good question, and fortunately there’s enough documentation to offer a solid answer.
When we started our own investigation we weren’t expecting to find that the concept that would lead to cruise control was adopted as early as 1788 on steam-powered engines. More than that, references of the concept reach back even further to the 17th century.
Centrifugal governors were created to control engine speeds through a process of regulating fuel allocation to maintain speed. The technology is credited to James Watt, though he himself never claimed to invent it as the feature was already available and used to regulate pressure on millstones and windmills for well over a century.
Still, his version would go on to be the most widely used ‘cruise control’ of its time, and continued to be popular during the Steam Age of the 19th century that followed.
But we’re not talking about locomotive technology, so we’ll skip ahead a bit to the systems that were used in automobiles in the early 20th century.
The Automobile Cruise Control System
Initially two companies were recognized for their prototype to modern cruise control:
Wilson-Pilcher – Founded in 1901, the company was initially established to produce automobiles and had installed a speed-regulation device that was governed by a lever on the steering column. This mechanism enabled the driver to slow or quicken the vehicle based on depressing a pedal, acting as a precursor to cruise control.
Peerless – Founded in 1900, Peerless Motor Company was recognized for their contribution to the advance in cruise control when they released a vehicle advertised to be able to “maintain speed whether up hill or down.”
All of this was well and good but it wouldn’t be until Ralph Teetor, born in 1890, that modern cruise control would receive the push it needed to provide drivers with a comfortable and reliable experience.
Who was Ralph Teetor?
Teetor was born in Hagerstown, Indiana, on February 15th, 1890, and has, in his life, earned much recognition as an inventory and an engineer. This is despite the fact that Teetor was blinded at age five in an incident that he preferred not to discuss as he grew older.
Graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in mechanical engineering at age 30, Teetor was recognized for his ability to assess a system and offer insightful feedback despite his disability. In fact, his highly-developed sense of touch contributed greatly to his work, including the creation of a technique for balancing steam turbine rotors that went on to be used in torpedo-boat destroyers.
Prior to his work on the field the concept of dynamic balancing of large components had puzzled engineers for years.
The invention of cruise control, as told by Teetor himself years later, the idea came to him as he was being driven around by his lawyer one day. He noticed that the lawyer would decrease in speed while speaking and increase when he was listening to Teetor speak. The inconsistency of the speed became an obvious and obnoxious irritation to Teetor to the point he resolved to solve the issue.
It would come to patent in 1945, after ten years of tinkering and testing.
Early on the invention was called a Controlmatic, Touchomatic, Pressomatic, and sometimes Speedostat, with Speedostat being the formal patent name.
The device was further evolved as larger manufacturers adopted the technology. For his contributions to the automotive industry Teeter received two honorary degrees, made a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and in 1988, 6 years after his death, he was posthumously inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.