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Praise for the blind man who invented cruise control

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THE INVENTION: Cruise control's that (wonderful, wonderful) thing that helps you avoid speeding tickets. Yup, everybody loves cruise control. Unlike many of the other ignored inventions, this handy accessory does get some acknowledgement. Unfortunately, that's only when it's either impossible to find on that little stick that turns on the blinkers, or when it's broken.

WHO TO THANK: a blind man. No, seriously! His name's Ralph Teetor, and he spent his whole life inventing things to make cars better. Teetor was blinded in a shop accident at age five, but apparently harbored no resentment for sharp tools. He went on to attend college and became one of the most respected mechanical engineers of his era. Although he was responsible for a lot of vehicular improvements, including automatic transmission, he's best known for making it possible for even lead-foots to stick to one speed. Inspiration struck during World War II, when the government set a 35 mph speed limit to conserve gas and tires—which is great and all, but some people just can't drive 35. Like, for instance, Teetor's lawyer. After a particularly bad trip during which the lawyer's jerky driving made Teetor carsick, the inventor came up with a device that could regulate car speed without the driver touching the gas pedal. A few tweaks and many dubious names (including "controlomatic" and "speedostat") later, cruise control premiered in selected 1958 Chrysler models. It was then an $86 option known as "Auto-Pilot."

BUT THE TRULY AMAZING THING IS THAT:
Teetor's blindness actually improved his ability to invent new things. In the process of learning how to function in a world he couldn't see, he developed an exceptional ability to visualize objects and guide himself via touch. In 1902, he built an automobile that let him tool around town at up to 25 mph. A neat feat by itself, but he was only 12 at the time. Later, he applied his skills to engineering and was able to solve problems sighted engineers couldn't. During World War I, he developed a new technique for balancing steam turbines on torpedo boat destroyers. Other engineers had tried for years to solve the problem, but Teetor's heightened sense of touch gave him the advantage. His expertise was so well known that he later became president of the Society of Automotive Engineers.

--note-- if you liked this entry, it's thanks to Maggie Koerth and her wonderful Inventions Cover story. I believe that issue's sold out, but other back issues of the floss are available at our online store.

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Pop Culture
Neil deGrasse Tyson Recruits George R.R. Martin to Work on His New Video Game
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Kevin Winter / Getty Images

George R.R. Martin has been keeping busy with the latest installment of his Song of Ice and Fire series, but that doesn’t mean he has no time for side projects. As The Daily Beast reports, the fantasy author is taking a departure from novel-writing to work on a video game helmed by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

DeGrasse Tyson’s game, titled Space Odyssey, is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. He envisions an interactive, desktop experience that will allow players to create and explore their own planets while learning about physics at the same time. To do this correctly, he and his team are working with some of the brightest minds in science like Bill Nye, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, and astrophysicist Charles Liu. The list of collaborators also includes a few unexpected names—like Martin, the man who gave us Game of Thrones.

Though Martin has more experience writing about dragons in Westeros than robots in outer space, deGrasse Tyson believes his world-building skills will be essential to the project. “For me [with] Game of Thrones ... I like that they’re creating a world that needs to be self-consistent,” deGrasse Tyson told The Daily Beast. “Create any world you want, just make it self-consistent, and base it on something accessible. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s quote: ‘First get your facts straight. Then distort them at your leisure.’”

Other giants from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, including Neil Gaiman and Len Wein (co-creator of Marvel's Wolverine character), have signed on to help with that same part of the process. The campaign for Space Odyssey has until Saturday, July 29 to reach its $314,159 funding goal—of which it has already raised more than $278,000. If the video game gets completed, you can expect it to be the nerdiest Neil deGrasse Tyson project since his audiobook with LeVar Burton.

[h/t The Daily Beast]

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Space
Flying Telescopes Will Watch the Total Solar Eclipse from the Air

If you've ever stood on the tips of your toes to reach something on a high shelf, you get it: Sometimes a little extra height makes all the difference. Although in this case, we're talking miles, not inches, as scientists are sending telescopes up on airplanes to monitor conditions on the Sun and Mercury during the upcoming total eclipse.

Weather permitting, the Great American Eclipse (as some are calling it) will be at least partially visible from anywhere in the continental U.S. on August 21. It will be the first time an eclipse has been so widely visible in the U.S. since 1918 and represents an incredible opportunity not only for amateur sky-watchers but also for scientists from coast to coast.

But why settle for gawking from the ground when there's an even better view up in the sky?

Scientists at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have announced plans to mount monitoring equipment on NASA research planes. The telescopes, which contain super-sensitive, high-speed, and infrared cameras, will rise 50,000 feet (about 9.5 miles) above the Earth's surface to sneak a very special peek at the goings-on in our Sun and its nearest planetary buddy.

Gaining altitude will not only bring the instruments closer to their targets but should also help them avoid the meteorological chaos down below.

"Being above the weather guarantees perfect observing conditions, while being above more than 90 percent of Earth's atmosphere gives us much better image quality than on the ground," SwRI co-investigator Constantine Tsang said in a statement. "This mobile platform also allows us to chase the eclipse shadow, giving us over seven minutes of totality between the two planes, compared to just two minutes and 40 seconds for a stationary observer on the ground."

The darkness of that shadow will blot out much of the Sun's overpowering daily brightness, giving researchers a glimpse at rarely seen solar emissions.

"By looking for high-speed motion in the solar corona, we hope to understand what makes it so hot," senior investigator Amir Caspi said. "It's millions of degrees Celsius—hundreds of times hotter than the visible surface below. In addition, the corona is one of the major sources of electromagnetic storms here at Earth. These phenomena damage satellites, cause power grid blackouts, and disrupt communication and GPS signals, so it's important to better understand them."

The temporary blackout will also create fine conditions for peeping at Mercury's night side. Tsang says, "How the temperature changes across the surface gives us information about the thermophysical properties of Mercury's soil, down to depths of about a few centimeters—something that has never been measured before."

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