Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
WILLIAM P. LEAR (1902 - 1978)
Audio, automotive and aircraft apparatus
From the 1930s to the 1960s, William Powell Lear earned over
100 patents for groundbreaking electronic devices in three
industries, including the first practical automobile radio,
the airplane radio-compass and autopilot, and the eight-track
Born in Hannibal, Missouri in 1902, Lear attended public
school in Chicago only through the eighth grade. During World
War I, at age 16, he joined the Navy; after the War, he became
a pilot. Here, Lear received the training that fueled a lifetime
of invention in electronic technology.
At the age of 20, Lear founded Quincy Radio Laboratory,
the first of his many companies. In the late 1920s Lear was
contracted by Galvin Manufacturing Corporation in Chicago
to assist Galvin engineers with a car radio design project.
Later, a car radio patent was issued to Lear (U.S. patent
1,944,139). In 1930 Galvin Manufacturing introduced this car
radio as the "Motorola." It was one of the first
commercially successful car radios, and the first major product
for the company that later became Motorola, Inc. Paul V. Galvin
created the Motorola brand from "motor" (motorcar)
+ "ola" (sound).
Meanwhile, Lear turned his attention to airplanes. By the
beginning of the Second World War, he had invented the first
reliable aeronautical radio compass, as well as the "Learmatic
Navigator"—an automatic pilot system, which kept
planes on course by locking into whatever radio broadcasts
the apparatus picked up.
During World War II, Lear's companies were a major source
of the technology that helped make an Allied victory possible.
Lear followed up his War effort by perfecting miniature autopilots
for fighter jets, and by developing the first fully automatic
landing system. This latter invention won Lear the FAA's Collier
Trophy, bestowed on him by President Truman (1950). In 1962,
after he made possible the first-ever completely automatic
blind landings of passenger flights, Lear was also honored
by the French Government. In the same year, Lear formed Learjet,
which soon became --- as it remains, under different ownership
--- the world's foremost supplier of corporate jets.
But Lear moved on to yet another challenge: the perfection
of an endless magnetic loop recording and playback system.
As early as 1946, Lear had been interested in audio recordings;
after experimenting more seriously in the early 1960s, he
created the eight-track tape player. Lear's tape contained
four stereo "programs," running in parallel on eight "tracks,"
for the entire length of a single, continuous tape loop. A
solenoid coil detected the splice where the loop was closed,
and sent a signal to the playback head to shift over to the
next pair of tracks at that point. Because Lear's system had
thinner tape and compact recording heads, this shifting process
could be repeated indefinitely.
Lear's system was a great improvement on the esoteric four-track
players that already existed; it was also a huge marketing
success. From 1965 well into the 1970s, Lear's eight-track
players made their way from Lear jets and Ford cars into the
homes of virtually every music enthusiast.
Lear's projects in the 1970s included further small-aircraft
design, and the search for an antipollutant steam engine.
Before and after his death in 1978, Lear earned many other
honors, including induction into the International Aerospace
Hall of Fame (1981). He also acquired a reputation as
an eccentric, since he --- like Samuel Clemens, another
native of Hannibal, Missouri --- vividly envisioned time-travel,
and even predicted "teleporting" (cf. "beaming" in Star Trek).
Critics should realize that the vision that earned William
Lear sneers is the same vision that helped him transform the
automotive, aviation and audio industries. If global technology
has not advanced as quickly as Lear thought it would, it was
through no fault of his own.