The Blind Automotive Engineer Who Saw More Than Most
Ralph Teetor was truly a wise man from whom we can still learn much.
If you’ve read through lists of little-known automotive history facts, you likely have come across the tidbit about a blind engineer inventing cruise control. That’s about all most know on the subject, but the life story of Ralph R. Teetor is loaded with timeless value. More than just a gimmick or a footnote in automotive history, the man put into practice several valuable principles he attributed to his career and personal success, and I would have to agree it was adhering to those ideals which helped him to push past barriers many would find impossible obstacles.
Ralph was a deeply religious man.
Raised a Christian Scientist, Ralph was taught from a young age to have faith in God and to apply himself dutifully every day. That tireless work ethic and trust that a higher power was watching out for his wellbeing allowed Ralph to literally step into the darkness every day for the rest of his life, knowing he wasn’t alone in his struggles. He easily could have sunk into nihilistic despair at the challenges of living blind from the time he was a small child. Instead, he accepted his burdens and allowed God to help make his weaknesses his strengths.
Ralph didn’t believe in being a victim.
After Ralph retired, an engineer from the Speedostat (what we know as cruise control) project asked Ralph the question many probably wanted to but were too scared to verbalize. “With all that you have been able to accomplish, what more do you think you would have done if you had been able to see?” The man probably was thinking if Ralph had the use of his eyes throughout his entire lifetime, he would have been even more accomplished and productive.
Ralph, however, didn’t agree with that implication in the least. “I probably couldn’t have done as much, because I can concentrate and you can’t.” Especially in this time of constant media flow, his point is quite salient. What more could we accomplish if we switched off all the devices and distractions, concentrating for even just a short time each day?
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Ralph despised heavy-handed government regulations.
Having always been suspicious of too much government intervention into private matters, Ralph was furious when Ralph Nader published Unsafe at any Speed in 1965. The book famously took down the Chevy Corvair, characterizing it as having a fundamentally flawed design. Nader also lambasted the automotive industry in general as caring nothing for the safety of vehicle occupants.
Prophetically, Ralph believed Nader’s push was the beginning of crushing government regulation in the auto industry. He went so far as to send Nader a letter filled with scathing reproaches: “… because you have concentrated practically all of your condemnation for the cause of highway accidents on the design of automobiles, you have relieved the drivers of their responsibility for safe driving.”
Today, this practice of blaming automakers for accidents which likely we caused by operator error has become commonplace. For example, studies into unintended acceleration events on multiple brands since Audi was smeared in the 1980s in the US market have concluded drivers have likely pressed on the accelerator instead of the brake pedal, or were pushing both pedals at the same time, yet automakers have been punished greatly for those and other incidents likely involving operator error.
The next line in the letter to Nader I think points out the end game of this total obsession with vehicle safety: “it is impossible to build a practical automobile that is safe when driven by an unreliable driver.” Ralph’s proposed solution was to pass laws to bar incompetent drivers from operating vehicles. However, the growing call from the tech and auto industries has been to remove the human from the wheel and let robots, which supposedly are perfect in their operation, to take over entirely. This utter disdain for humanity has taken other forms beyond just the safety push, but Ralph thought the catalyst for this effort in the auto industry was Ralph Nader.
Ralph despised socialism.
In a newsletter to his employees, Ralph railed on the New Deal, calling it “the war on private enterprise” and “purely socialistic in origin” with “nothing to do with our war effort.” Among the reasons for his distaste of the legislation championed by FDR and subsequently remembered with fondness by his fans today was the concept of trying to “strengthen the weak by weakening the strong” and to “help the poor by destroying the rich.” He saw such attempts at leveling society’s socio-economic disparities as destructive to the fabric of society and robbing men of their “initiative and independence.”
Later, Ralph called out President Truman for promoting more taxes and greater government control of private industry and even citizens’ private lives. He was particularly suspicious of federal aid provided to educational institutions, calling it a nonpartisan issue which should concern every American. His prediction that such initiatives would lower education standards across the country has aged quite well, particularly when it comes to college and post-graduate programs. Ralph truly saw more than most.
Ralph strove to help others help themselves.
Since he absolutely despised being viewed as anything but a functional human, Ralph didn’t tolerate other people with so-called handicaps making excuses. He at one point addressed WWII veterans who had been injured in combat and lost their sight, telling them, “Nothing can stop you from enjoying a normal, happy life once you have made up your mind that is what you are going to have.”
It’s natural to want to feel sorry for yourself when you’ve suffered a hardship, but Ralph saw this as a weakness, not a strength. He did acknowledge to those veterans that because of their loss of sight, they’d have to work harder to convince others they could still perform certain tasks, but he encouraged them to work hard in a field of their choice rather than waiting for someone else to take care of them.
Ralph despised big government.
In another company letter written in August 1949, Ralph expressed his hope that in fifty years the citizens of the United States wouldn’t be “enslaved by either an all-powerful federal government in Washington, or by debt.” The man was suspicious of government promising to pay the bills of Americans, specifically talking about universal healthcare (a concept so many today claim is new) and a universal basic income. He went on to explain that freedom doesn’t entail solely the ability to succeed but also might mean failing some of the time. As a man who had faced many challenges in life and tasted failure more than a few times, he knew the value of becoming stronger in the face of adversity. He also understood the danger of society being shielded from the harshness of reality by an all-powerful, protectorate government which would simultaneously smother the citizenry like a helicoptering mother.
Closing the letter to his employees, Ralph’s words have direct application to our situation today: “Too many of us are asking the federal government to do for us what our grandparents would have done for themselves; too many office holders are keeping themselves in power by promising spectacular gifts to the electorate. The old concepts of thrift and economy are laughed out of court by theorists who delight in squandering money that other people have earned. What seems to be a wasteful and inefficient federal government is reaching out like an octopus to wrap itself around more and more phases of your life and mine.” Imagine what he would say about the federal government today!
Ralph believed in the power of forgiveness.
Ralph and his wife Nellie liked to tell the story of an associate of theirs who was half Jewish and lost his mother during the German invasion of Vienna. He was turned in to the Nazis for not being “pureblooded” and knew who ratted him out. Years later he saw the man responsible for so much of his personal suffering during the war. That man was “older and broken-looking” likely from the guilt of what he had done. That’s when Ralph’s associate heard a voice in his head saying, “This hate has to stop somewhere; it might as well stop with you.” Ralph absolutely believed in the power of forgiveness, allowing one to move forward instead of being caught up in the wrongs of the past.
I sincerely believe there’s much wisdom packed into the life and philosophies of Ralph Teetor. The man learned to move forward instead of feeling sorry for himself, to not rely on others to do what he could do himself, and to work hard to master a set of skills. These values seem to be lacking more and more in society.
If you’d like to read more about Ralph Teetor and his inspirational life, check out the biography his daughter Marjorie Teetor Meyer wrote, called One Man’s Vision. I don’t profit from the sale of the book but love sharing good reads with others.