Lemelson-MIT Program
Who We Are Awards Outreach News
Invention Dimension Search Site Map Contact Us
Inventor of the Week

Inventor of the Week Archive

Browse for a different Invention or Inventor


WILLIAM P. LEAR (1902 - 1978)

Audio, automotive and aircraft apparatus

Bill 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 tape player.

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.

[Nov. 1998]

Invention Dimension
Inventor of the Week Inventor of the Week
Inventor's Handbook Inventor's Handbook
Games & Trivia Games & Trivia
Links & Resources Links & Resources