William Powell Lear

INVENTOR, AVIATOR

“There are two kinds of inventors. There is the inventor who just likes to be clever and come up with a new idea. And there is the inventor who realizes there is a need and tries to fill it. I have spent my whole life discovering needs and then finding ways to fulfill them.”
—Bill Lear

Bill Lear is best known for designing and building the small jet airplane that carries his name, the Learjet, but he also has a number of inventions that don’t bear his name. This amazing man had only an eighth grade formal education, but he invented the 8-track tape player, the car radio, the navigational radio, and the autopilot technology for aircraft. Many businessmen and inventors who worked with him say he was a man of incredible intellect and exceptional personal determination. His foes, who were also numerous, viewed him as a dictator who did anything to get his way. But “his way” was successful, as he landed nearly 160 patents, many of which changed the way we live.

 

Location of Hannibal in MissouriTHE EARLY YEARS

Bill Lear was born on June 26, 1902, in Hannibal. He was an extremely intelligent youngster who showed a great deal of determination and hard-headedness, which likely came from his efforts to please his parents in their on-again off-again relationship.

When he was only 12 years old, he told his friends that he planned to become rich by inventing things that people wanted. In fact, he was so agitated with the slow pace of formal schooling that he started looking for ways to join the workforce before he was even a teenager. He moved to Chicago when he was still young, then dropped out of school in the eighth grade when he ran away from home to pursue his dreams.

 

 RISE TO FAME

Lear spent little time in school, which didn’t stop his quest for knowledge. He became a self-taught electrical engineer, a mechanic, and even lied about his age to join the military when he was only sixteen. The Navy turned out to be a great place for him to continue his education because he was able to study radio design and electronics in a practical setting while getting paid for his training in the process.

Not long after he left the Armed Services, he put his new skills to work by designing the first car radio. He was unable to find a company to  financially back his plan, so he ultimately sold his plans to the Motorola Corporation. That sale was the first step towards putting him on the path to fame as a successful and well-known inventor.

 SHOW ME SUCCESS

Lear’s next invention gave him large financial rewards and the reputation of a man who could get things done. He designed a universal radio amplifier, where he once again sold the plans to a major corporation.

The money he made from that invention gave him the financial support he needed to expand his blossoming empire. He founded the Avia Corporation in 1934 to produce radio and navigational devices for aircraft. Over the next five years, he dominated the industry by producing more than half of all aircraft radio and navigational equipment sold.

Despite the success he was having with instrumentation, his real dream was to design and manufacture aircraft. He started Lear, Incorporated in 1939, building stereo systems and communication satellites, and reaching sales of $90 million between 1950 and 1962. The business was rapidly expanding, but Lear’s plans to build the world’s first inexpensive, mass-produced business jet put him in disfavor with the board of directors of his company.   When he failed to convince them of his plan, he sold his interest in the company and formed Lear Jet, Inc.

The first compact jet from Lear Jet was produced in 1963 and quickly became the most popular private jet in the world. In the company’s infancy the planes had several problems, which caused a number of crashes and pushed aviation experts to question the design. Bad press reports and sagging sales caused Lear to lose interest in aviation for a while.  Gates Rubber Company stepped in and bought the company, which freed him to pursue his next endeavor, the steam-powered car.

Lear Motors Corporation was designed to take automotive transportation to the next level, but he never made much progress towards the next generation of automotive engines.  The process of getting people interested in an automobile that ran on something other than gasoline proved to be an uphill climb. Just like in previous endeavors, he lost interest in the project and returned to aviation.

Lear’s final venture into aircraft manufacturing led him on a quest to develop a faster and more efficient type of business jet, known as the Learfan. Not long after his second venture in aircraft design he discovered that he had leukemia and didn’t have much time to live. This medical revelation sent him into overdrive to complete his designs for the turboprop jet. His time ran out on May 14, 1978, and he died without finishing his final project. Despite his failure to leave one final mark on aviatioFile:Learjet24sn131WingsOvertheRockiesMuseum.JPGn, he left behind a legacy of success in a number of industries and a name still known around the world today.

EXTRA, EXTRA!

*Lear won the Frank M. Hawks Award for designing the Learmatic Navigator in 1940.

*He was the first pilot to fly a plane to the Soviet Union.

*President Harry S Truman gave Lear the Collier Trophy for developing the autopilot.

*The city of Paris presented Lear with its Great Silver Medal for his aid in developing the autopilot for the Caravelle jetliner in
1962.

 

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