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William P. Lear

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Biography

William P. Lear’s name lives on in the eponymous Learjet, but his contributions to the history of automotive, aeronautical, and consumer electronics were far broader, encompassing over one hundred patents.

Lear was born in 1902 in Hannibal, Missouri and attended public school only through the eighth grade. A self-taught mechanic, he lied about his age to join the Navy at age sixteen. He served in World War I and became a Naval pilot, receiving training in electronics that he would apply after the war to start a radio company in 1920. His Quincy Radio Laboratory worked under contract for Chicago’s Galvin Manufacturing Company to build the first commercially viable car radio (U.S. Patent Number 1,944,139), which Galvin sold under the brand name “Motorola.”

Lear had further commercial success when he designed a universal radio amplifier in 1934. RCA Corporation bought the rights to the technology, giving Lear capital to finance his next venture: aeronautical radio. He started the Lear Avia Corporation in 1934 to design radio and navigational devices for planes. By 1939, his company, Lear, Inc., composed half of the private market for radio and navigational equipment in United States aircraft. Lear, Inc., built cowl-flap motors for Allied planes during World War II and created a miniaturized autopilot after the war. It also designed the first fully automatic landing system, earning him awards from President Harry Truman and the government of France.

By the 1950s, Lear decided to branch out into consumer electronics and took on the challenge of designing an endless magnetic loop recording and playback system. He created an eight-track cassette tape player by the early 1960s. This technology became commonplace in automobiles and home stereos by the end of the decade.

Meanwhile, Lear pursued the market for a lower-priced small jet aircraft that could serve business executives. His board of directors declined to support this idea, so he sold his share of the company and formed Lear Jet, Inc., which created the first compact jet in 1963. Lear sold his interest in this company in 1967 and formed the short-lived Lear Motors Corporation, hoping to produce a steam-powered car.

Further Reading

Kenneth Miller, First-Hand: LearJet, Auto Pilot and Eight Tracks

US Patent number 1,944,139