Born on June 26th, 1902 in Hannibal
, William Powell Lear Sr. was an aviation entrepreneur
, research scientist
, and inventor
, with a passion for life and a razor-sharp
mind. He was best known as a revolutionary who defied the industry thinking of
the time and created the Learjet
. The invention of the
launched his name into history, but it
would slight him of the recognition he deserves for
his other achievements if that was all he was known
An autodidact that left school in eighth grade, Bill
was a ravenous reader who tore through Horatio Alger
stories and every book and magazine on science,
technology, and electronics he could get his hands on.
Bill joined the Navy and was trained to be a wireless operator. After the end of WWI, he left the service and in 1922 formed Quincy Radio Labratories in Quincy, Illinois. In 1924 he moved to he moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and created the Lear Radio Laboratory. As a consultant for Grigby-Grunrow, he redesigned the “B” battery system so that it could be run from household current.
In 1930 Bill worked with the Paul Galvin Manufacturing Company and invented the first working car radio. He later sold his radio, coil, and amplifier company to them, and that company would later take the name he gave his invention, Motorola. From there he created a new company called Lear Developments, creator of such inventions the Lear Radioaire Receiver.
In 1931, Bill bought a Fleet biplane and, after only two and a half hours of instruction, made his solo flight. He later flew cross-country to New York, an experience that caused him to focus on the sad state of aircraft navigation at the time. In 1934 Bill was living in New York when he invented the all-wave radio receiver, used by planes to pick up radio beacon signals. RCA Victor bought his idea, giving him the seed money to develop a radio direction finder for airplanes. The Lear-o-scope won him the Frank M. Hawk Memorial Award.
His companies, Lear Corp. and LearAvia Corporation,
filled more than $100 million in defense orders during
World War II. He also developed the technology that he
eventually integrated to create the automatic pilot in the
late 40’s, capable of locking onto a homing signal and landing an aircraft in "zero-zero" weather. Bill received the American Collier Trophy in 1949 for this achievement. He also received the Great Silver Medal from the City of Paris in 1956. Later, a French Caravelle airliner equipped with his autopilot made aviation history by completing a series of completely blind landings.
In 1941, Bill married the lovely Moya Marie Olsen, daughter of famed comedian Ole Olsen of Broadway fame. They were married for for 36 years.
In 1962, Bill Lear took a huge gamble and sold his stake in Lear Incorporated. Moving to Wichita, Kansas he formed Lear Jet Industries. There he produced the first jet aircraft ever developed and financed by a single individual (He did it faster than scheduled, to boot.) The first test flights were made in October of 1963, where he demonstrated that the Lear Jet could fly at over 40,000 feet at a speed of over 600 mph, (roughly 1,000 kph), a performance rivaling that of many military fighter jets. In June of 1964, during a certification flight, an FAA pilot crashed it at takeoff when he forgot to retract the lift spoilers. Bill overcame what would have destroyed many other entrepreneurs, pushing hard to field a second prototype two months later that was certified by the FAA. The first year sales of the Lear Jet totaled $52,000,000, and eventually 700 were made.
In 1967 Bill sold Learjet Industries to the Gates Rubber Company. He then bought a facility near a deserted air force base in Reno, Nevada to produce a pollution-free automotive engine. He tested the Lear Vapordyne race car, a steam bus, and a steam car. He created an external combustion, vapor-driven turbine engine, having very low emissions and capable of powering a transit bus. Unfortunately, while his engine worked well, it isn’t as efficient as a conventional engine. The entire venture collapsed, and cost him millions of dollars. This, however, did not slow him down.
Bill Lear created the 8-track stereo tape player and cartridge system, which became the standard for automobiles of the time (over 65,000 Motorola 8-track players were installed in Ford dashboards in 1966 alone), and by 1978 was an $8 billion a year industry.
In 1977, Lear attacked the problem of the rising cost of fuel for business jets. The resulting design is called the Lear Fan.
It was the last project he started, and in his last 2 months he made sure work on the Lear Fan would continue even after his death. On his deathbed, he told his wife, Moya, to "finish it". The goal was to make a low cost aircraft that would operate at one-tenth the cost of a typical corporate jet. The project was eventually successful, but without Bill to push it further, the Lear Fan never entered the marketplace, and only a few were built. Today they are highly prized examples of revolutionary aircraft design and manufacture. The Lear Fan was made almost entirely of graphite/epoxy and Kevlar composite materials, and used a single rear-mounted propeller driven by twin turbojets for propulsion.
On May 14, 1978, William Powell Lear passed away in Reno, Nevada. His ashes were spread over the Pacific Ocean by his family.