Like the Rolls Royce emblem, the claim the license plate makes — America’s first air car — is a lie.
Truitt’s Buick ran on gasoline, but he claimed he invented a way to run cars entirely on air power. He once ran a car for “maybe 3,000 miles” without stopping at a gas station, he told The Pittsburgh Press in 1978.
When this photo was taken in 1978, inventor Bill Truitt said he was just about ready to convert his Buick to air power. All the gadgets he’ll need are installed in his car but not attached to anything. (Ross A. Catanza/Pittsburgh Press)
“Bill Truitt has ‘wake-up glasses’ for sleeping drivers,” reads the caption on this September 1977 photo. (Pittsburgh Press)
“Bill Truitt ‘airs’ his new engine concept,” reads the caption on this November 1973 photo. (Ross A. Colanza/Pittsburgh Press) https://archives.post-gazette.com/image/141717215
In 1973, Truitt said he lacked the money and equipment to fully develop the car, so he turned over plans and a scale model to then-U.S. Rep. John Heinz III to guard any patent rights and direct the plans to the appropriate government agency. Though the Press articles about the inventor never directly call him crazy, Truitt — who had successfully patented a distilled water coffee pot and an electric fishing rod — is portrayed as a “muttering man who tinkers with gadgets and gizmos for hours.”
That description of the public perception of an inventor comes from another story in the same newspaper in 1976, titled “Inventors: They didn’t know it was impossible.” It’s a feel-good story about “Joe Jones and Mary Smiths out invent[ing] the brightest think tanks and hired brains.”
Inventor stories seem to largely fall into two categories — the muttering man and the hardworking underdog — and both result in entertaining stories about people and technology.
File Edward Wright Sr.’s story under the hardworking underdog category. The retired engineer invented a pump that helped his granddaughter, Jennifer, who had a rare form of lymphedema. Watching as the hospital treated Jennifer with a single compression pump, Ed saw the flaw and invented a better pump. Jennifer’s improvement was almost immediate.
First told in The Pittsburgh Press, the story gained national attention — in part because Ed was legally blind when he invented the pump. Months later, he ended up talking with a Florida man who purchased the pump for his daughter. In your everyday experimental-medical-device-coincidence, the man had the same eye disease as Edward and had just heard of new experimental eyeglasses. When he returned from Florida with the glasses, Ed was able to write a letter for the first time in four years.
That’s the face of a man who was scammed out of $8,500 and still couldn’t sell his coffee table.
Countless amateur inventors have seen their dreams crushed and wallets drained by companies that charge a lot and do very little, as a 1992 front-page Sunday story in The Pittsburgh Press exposed, and three of the largest scammers had Pittsburgh roots.
Peter Kunz was one of many who fell victim to TLCI, then the third or fourth largest invention marketing firm in the country. TLCI told Kunz about companies it had contacted about his invention, but Kunz did his research and found that many of them didn’t actually exist.
Wayne Martin, senior designer at U.S. Steel’s Homestead Works, stands next to his power generating turbine disk, one of six patents he had when this photo was taken in November 1982. (Albert M. Herrmann Jr./Pittsburgh Press) https://archives.post-gazette.com/image/142964379/?terms=%22wayne%2Bmartin%22%2Bus%2Bsteel
Wayne Martin, senior designer at U.S. Steel’s Homestead Works, holds a coupling for rolling mills, one of 12 patents he had pending when this photo was taken in November 1982. (Albert M. Herrmann Jr./Pittsburgh Press) https://archives.post-gazette.com/image/142964379/?terms=%22wayne%2Bmartin%22%2Bus%2Bsteel
Wayne Martin might be “a vanishing American,” The Pittsburgh Press warned in 1982. American ingenuity was declining, but the U.S. Steel designer continued pumping out inventions. The warning wasn’t wrong — foreign applications for U.S. patents have begun to eclipse domestic applications in recent years.
Though American patent dominance is no longer reality, the number of U.S. patent applications, from both Americans and non-Americans, has increased almost every year since the 80s.
Click through these photos to see more Pittsburghers who contributed to those numbers.
Jim Thomason attaches a device which enlarges the image on a TV set, Feb. 3, 1982. Large screen TVs were prohibitely expensive for the average consumer at the time, but Thomason promoted his invention as being “twice as bright and half the price.” (Anthony Kaminski/Pittsburgh Press)
Charles Wright, 72, of Penn Hills has invented the Wright Gravity Emergency Stop, a patented device to stop runaway trucks. He and his father started working on the device in the early 60s, but his father died in 1966, which slowed the progress. Here, he stands in front of a truck in Leetsdale Industrial Park, June 21, 1989. (Susie Post/Pittsburgh Press)
Mike Vuik, right, teaches Thom Eaton of Trafford how to use the Swing Machine to help his golf swing, June 21, 1990. (Dave Yoder/Pittsburgh Press)
Inventor Malcomb Toy of Edgewood in his workshop, Nov. 2, 1990. (Vince Musi/Pittsburgh Press)
Pier Benei of Trans Data Corp. of Pittsburgh awaits interested inventors at his company booth, June 23, 1989, at the Venture Capital Fair Downtown. Trans Data Corp. developed a radio telemetry system, TDC-1600, which eliminated the need for telephone wires.
Sean Ferris, seen here in April 1988, says his gadget reduces electric bills by putting children and people in wheelchairs within reach of light switches. (John Heller/Pittsburgh Press)
Gary Dimmick, left, and Scott Lockerman said in November 1986 that $100,000 would give a boost to their lock invention. The duo has four patents. (Thomas Ondrey/Pittsburgh Press)
Todd Burton displays the toy gun he invented and piles of paperwork involved in the patent he’s applying for, March 15, 1985. (Donald J. Statzer/Pittsburgh Press)
Wayne Porter with his invention, a Dual Cable System Tape and View Bow, which allows cable customers to tape one thing as they watch another, May 25, 1989. (Robert J. Pavuchak/Pittsburgh Press)
Arnold Cook, described by a patent attorney as Pittsburgh’s Thomas Edison, displays some of the molds and components he invented for a phased array radar in April 1991. He says the modern inventor must “know a little bit about a lot — enough to be dangerous.” (Patrick Tehan/Pittsburgh Press)
John Marker, left, and inventor L.A. Donaldson practice on a Dial-A-Con, Dec. 18, 1975. https://archives.post-gazette.com/image/147287618/?terms=John%2BMarker%2BL.A.%2BDonaldson
Ben Mauti, a fifth grader at E.L. Shepard, adjusts his invention, a shopping cart with a video game attached to it, Dec. 12, 1991. He said that when he goes shopping with his mother he often sees screaming, bored kids, so he invented this to help time go faster. (Pittsburgh Press)