Bill Lear Interview

Inventor Bill Lear talks about universe theories, religion, and traveling faster than the speed of light.

William Powell Lear was a notable rarity among inventors of the 60s and 70s: He turned his ideas into money. The classic inventor sold out in despair after years of unrewarding toil, then watched someone else make a fortune out of his invention. Bill Lear, by contrast, was worth between $30 and $50 million in his prime—and he started from scratch.

His first fortune was made while he was still in his twenties, when he invented and successfully marketed the world's first automobile radio. A middle school dropout, he bummed around fixing flat car batteries, which led to a radio shop. Motorola, the company he formed to manufacture his first big invention, is now an international undertaking and still a leading brand name.

One of Lear’s most headline-making projects was a steam engine to power a motor car in place of the internal combustion engine. At one point he announced he was giving up, but a reorganization of research progressed the project well enough that General Motors assigned a permanent liaison to the project.

Lear’s other projects included a brushless alternator that should last indefinitely, a new compressor, a miniaturized hydraulic pump, and reclamation of precious ores from used materials, in particular silver from photographic waste. Lear worked on these schemes with the aid of a battery of instant digital readout computers.

In 1971, he announced a new super-lightweight autopilot for aircraft, weighing just 18 lbs and costing less than $10,000. The device has a "scram" button which you can press for a missed-approach procedure when landing on instruments: It gives you instant go-round. Autopilots are part of a field in which Lear made another fortune, using his Motorola money to produce radio aids for pilots. In 1949, he was awarded the Collier trophy for the first lightweight autopilot. This involvement in avionics led to the product for which Lear's name is known throughout international flying: the Learjet, the most popular executive jet in the business during the 70s.

The man responsible for this amazing range of technical wizardry passed away in 1978, but not without leaving a legacy of inventions behind him. His company, Learjet, has since become a subsidiary of Canadian Bombardier Aerospace, which now markets it as Bombardier Learjet Family. His office had inscribed pictures from Neil Armstrong and his crew, Bernard Baruch, and President Nixon. He was married four times, and admitted a liking for women and whiskey—though he disapproved of pot. His talk swung unpredictably from hard-line reaction to advanced radicalism.

Endlessly multi-faceted, he packed a short-barrel .38 revolver in his waistband and a deputy sheriff's star in his wallet, he flew his Learjet nonchalantly from the left seat, and played the piano with skill. In this exclusive Penthouse interview, conducted by Paul Fillingham in 1971, Bill Lear talks of his Horatio Alger progress from school dropout to millionaire inventor, and of the changes—social as well as technical—he sees coming in the future.

Paul Fillingham: As a man who has been concerned in so many past inventions, what do you think are going to be the most promising fields for future invention?

Lear: The most exciting field I know of is solid-state microcircuitry, for use in computers, memory devices, and so on. I recently saw some photographic film that would withstand a temperature of 2000°F. On it was a photograph, of an object which looked like a smudge, about the size of a pinhead. They amplified this, enlarged it until it was the state of Florida. Then it was amplified until it was just the Cape Kennedy complex. They stepped it up one more enlargement and I could see a football lying on the ground alongside one of our Apollo ships. You could see the lacing on the football. It was amazing. The picture had been taken from 100 miles up, which means that the grain size must be about nine atoms. All this done with a piece of material which will withstand 2000°F. So it seems to me that it's in the solid-state field that things are happening, You know, if you could dig up Edison, or Steinmetz, or any of those fellows and show them just a simple transistor, it would probably take them the rest of their lives to figure out what it was—and not only that, what it would do. I can foresee a little device which you could carry in your pocket as easily as a packet of cigarettes and it could put you in touch with any place in the world, through the satellite communications system.

Do you believe that such devices are going to make much improvement in human affairs, and contribute materially to human happiness?

I take just the opposite view. The more material things we have, the less actual happiness—only convenience. The important thing is not to have so much. When you get one house, that's something—you have a nice house to live in. At one time, I had 14 homes—14 headaches, because I had to worry about what was happening in each home. I got rid of them finally. Now I'm down to a home in Greece, two homes in Geneva, one here in Reno, and one in Los Angeles. Only five homes now!

Mr. Lear, you're supposed to be worth some $40 or $50 million, Surely that must make you a little bit happy, if only from a sense of achievement?

Not because I've got it, but because I can do things with it. I spend my money on challenges, like trying to make this steam car, like trying to make the Learjet. When I started out to make the Learjet, I did it with my own money and I did it because I wanted such a machine and none was available. And having wanted it badly, I decided I'd make one. But you could have gotten bets from the whole aircraft industry that it was an impossible venture; No one had ever done it. I had no experience in making an airplane. I wasn't even educated—well, grammar school, but not at high school. All the bets were that it couldn't be done. That only made it a bigger challenge, so not only did I make the Learjet, but the plane today is the most popular business jet in the world. There are more Learjets around than any other executive jet.

I worked on the details myself. Now details are not perfection itself, but they make for perfection. My enjoyment is in doing things. Simply buying something isn't fun. I could buy 100 cameras; I can buy any kind of hi-fi, any kind of television set. I've got a little old TV set at home, you'd think I was a miser because this little TV is just a portable. But it serves its purpose. Money certainly takes you away from a hell of a lot of misery but it doesn't necessarily bring happiness. What it does bring to me is the capability of doing things without having to ask somebody for the money—to see whether it can or cannot be done.

In other words, you're not hamstrung by corporation accountants dictating maximum short-term profit figures at you?

Sort of. But even the head of a corporation, as I've been at various times, can't do what he wants to do. I don't care whether you own the majority of the stock, you are always beholden to the most minor stockholder. After all, you're spending his money, too. He has a right to look at you from the standpoint of being responsible for his money. I like it better when it's just me. When I started off to make a steam car, you couldn't have found a project with so little background. Remember that the automobile industry had spent over $70 billion developing that internal combustion engine for more than 70 years. And here I am in just a couple of years and with a couple of million dollars—well, seven or eight—audaciously catching up the internal combustion engine. It was a big challenge, you know—a bigger challenge than making the Learjet. This is the kind of thrill you get out of having money, despite the setbacks. You can't do these sorts of things under the present system if you're using other people's money. 

You have a signed photograph of President Nixon on the wall. You campaigned for the President?

I knew him well, and I was always for him before he was actually a candidate. In my conversations with him he seemed the logical man to be President—absolutely honest, absolutely knowledgeable. I don't agree with some of the things he's done. I think he's got to recognize, for example, that there are various elements in dealing with the unions: There's management, there are the unions themselves, but—something far more important—there's also the people of this country. One of the things that made Germany such a solvent nation—they have the hardest currency in the world—is that they recognized that there must be an interested third party in labor management negotiations: the government. President Nixon has said: "I'll keep my hands off because I don't want to introduce controls. If I control labor, I must control industry." Which is a complete mistake. He could have controlled labor because that is a trust. Industry isn't. It's highly competitive. The thing to do is to control the prices. What the Germans did was to control their labor prices and, as a result, they won a world market. This is one thing we're losing. Our present union situation in this country is causing us to look elsewhere to find places where we can do it cheaper.

Would you go into politics now if the opportunity presented itself?

Yes, I'd go into politics to try to bring back realism. The majority of politicians do the things to ensure their reelection. There'd be a much better political situation if there were no possibility of a second term. Multiple-term politicians are not basically honest with their constituents. They don't do what is right so much as what will help them most in the next election.

Did you approve of doing away with the invention of the bra, as advocated by some women's liberationists?

It's according to what's under the bra. I think a lot of women are not going to be willing to do that, especially if they intend to jump rope.

Do you think America's drug problem is as serious as some would make it?

I think the use of drugs is escapism, and that almost always ends up disastrously. It never stops—you always need something a little bit stronger, I don't think the same argument holds true for whiskey. I drink whiskey and in the morning I sometimes wish somebody had stopped me from doing it. But I'm sure that if I were taking drugs, in the morning I'd want more drugs to bring me back up to the level I was at the night before. For children especially, drugs are terribly detrimental, because the kids go step by step, a little higher all the time, until finally they begin mainlining the strong drugs. The only people to have really benefitted by drugs are the criminals who deal in them, who don't care about the misery caused by hard drugs. 

In general do you approve of the freedom associated with today's so-called "permissive society"?

Sexual freedom is advisable, because in that way young people can avoid the greatest amount of trouble in marriage later. When the only way to indulge in sex is to marry, at an early age, invariably the sexual attractiveness of the other partner becomes the dominating factor. And this is a pretty poor thing to base a lifelong marriage on. It has a habit, you know, of becoming less attractive as you get older. With more freedom to engage in sex, you can really decide: "He/she is great in the hay, but lousy at conversation and would make a dumb wife/dull husband." Sex really takes only minutes out of the 24 hours in a day, relatively speaking, when you're living with someone. It's better to have something besides sex to depend on to build a good marriage. So there's a desirable freedom. But take the freedom of using bad language: That just indicates a lack of vocabulary. It's easier to swear and substitute what you're trying to say with a vulgarity or swear word than to be more precise—to have a vocabulary that would accurately express yourself. 

To me, vulgarity in language is just a complete cop-out. I don't think that's really liberty. As for sex, I don't think there's any difference now than there ever was in the "doing" of it. It's just a case of being a little more open about it now. Formerly, when a little girl got in trouble she'd probably get in a whole lot more trouble by having to sneak around a corner to some butcher who could ruin her life or her chances of having children in the future—if she didn't actually die. I've always been for a freer availability of abortion. In my opinion, it's a lot better to have an abortion than a lot of bastards running around. One of our basic problems is propagation of our kind. It's amazing that in a period of something like 21 generations, where you're only increasing the population by 1.1 percent per year, in just a few generations you have populated the earth beyond its capacity to have people even stand on it. People don't believe that because they haven't operated computers. I can show you something that will make your hair stand on end because the computer runs out of numbers after relatively few generations of increasing the population at that 1.1 percent yearly.

How do you suggest remedying this problem of overpopulation?

Now I can't solve that problem because it's too difficult, but we're going to have to solve it. Possibly there will get to be so many people that there will be a cataclysm, or something like that, which will wipe out three-fourths of the population. It's too bad that may have to happen. A kind of natural reaction takes place, like in the lemmings. They finally eliminate their over-population by drowning themselves or by going over the edge of a cliff. The one great disaster facing us is the possibility of a nuclear war—I believe it's more imminent than a lot of people care to admit. I know scientists who poo-poo the idea of a nuclear war. But the temptation is very great on the part of some of the half-wits who get in a position where the button is available. Only one button has to be pressed, and there will be a lot more buttons pressed, and then of course, we won't have a population problem for a long time to come. I always remember the cartoon of the monkeys up in the trees after the holocaust, looking down and saying: "Oh my God! Do we have to start this whole thing again?"

Man's ability to destroy himself does this make you religious?

Well, I'm deeply religious—strange as it may seem, because possibly the church would fall down if ever I walked inside. I can't believe there's one God for the Moslems, and one for the Yemenites, and one for the Chinese, and one for the Catholics, and one for the Protestants. This world is too well organized for it to have been created so haphazardly. Some situation organized the whole thing. I firmly believe that there's probably a million worlds like us in the universe. I also have a firm belief in the supernatural. 

Photo via Aquarian Radio

Do we humans make a mistake in anthropomorphizing God? Might God not exist as mathematical formulae throughout the universe?

It's easy to make that mistake. We always think of a god as something like ourselves. The black people like to think he's black, the white people like to think he's white. Probably the Jewish people like to think he's Jewish. We always do this. We try to identify. I believe it is possible that God could be a mathematical situation. Nevertheless, something does exist which has a tremendous influence on our lives. We call on this influence for our benefit; Many times we do it subconsciously. I believe that something may even come to our rescue to prevent that holocaust I was talking about.

Some years back you posed the possibility of telekinesis and also teleportation—the reassembly of matter instantaneously at distant parts of the world. Have you thought any further about those ideas?

I think these ideas would be entirely possible in the future. But at the time I said it, I wasn't serious. One of the things to realize is that there's no known way to destroy matter—or create it. This means we can only change its form. Maybe one of the ways of changing its form is to change it to an electrical signal which we could send over the wire.

As far as creation is concerned, are you a "big bang" universe theorist, or do you incline to "continuous creation"?

I'm a continuous creation thinker. The big bang theory doesn't make much sense to me, though there are some theories which show we're now possibly the opposite side of the big bang—coming back together again. Reading theories of that kind, I feel like the lady who went up to a visiting lecturer and said: "Sir, liked your lecture, but when you were talking about the Earth coming to an end, did you say one million years or five million years?" And his reply: "Madam, I said five million years." "Oh, I'm so relieved," the lady said.

Do you think it will ever be possible to break the light barrier—exceed the apparent ultimate speed, the speed of light?

I think so. It can already be demonstrated in telepathy that we break it. Not so long ago, 60 mph was supposed to take your breath away. In our own time it was thought impossible to fly faster than the speed of sound. This was very peculiar, because right next door at Wright field was a ballistics laboratory where bullets were shot at three and four times the speed of sound. Yet it seems that the aeronautical people never made a trip of 100 yards to find out this was going on all the time.

Do you expect that work on lasers may lead to the breaking of the light barrier?

Not the light barrier. But I do think that lasers may enable us to burn something up at a great distance—something, for instance, that we don't want floating around 100 miles above us. We could focus a laser beam on it and just burn it to a cinder. This is almost within the range of accomplishment now. That's the thing I see as the ultimate weapon to take things out of orbit we don't like to see there.

A sort of anti-ballistic missile system?

I think probably that that would be a workable anti-ballistic missile system.

During your lifetime you have demonstrated that it is possible for a human being to do numerous things and achieve success in various fields. You have also suggested that there is terrific inertia in most human beings. Do you attribute your success to the fact that you were born under a particular astrological sign?

I have some regard for astrology, though not an awful lot. I think I owe more to belligerence on my part, which has so resented inertia. The innovator is always up against inertia. For instance, when I wanted to put automatic direction finders on airplanes, I found that inertia in the aircraft industry—where there should have been very little because it was a new industry—was as great as in any other human endeavor. It took them 10 years to adopt direction finders, even though these were vitally needed.

Finally, when they were adopted, they were found to be so important that you weren't allowed to take off without two of them. When I wanted to put out the first automobile radio, Paul Galvin, who was then president of Galvin Manufacturing, later Motorola, said automobile radios would be legislated right out of cars. I believed automobile radios would be a means of relaxing the driver when he got into a traffic jam; He could listen to Amos 'n' Andy, the weather report, or business news. That was another case of inertia, but we overcame it finally and built a business which became Motorola. I left Motorola simply because the challenge was in aircraft radios. I did what I wanted to do most—fly. And because I wanted to fly, why I went into the aircraft business. One of the greatest problems there was in selling radios to pilots, who would say: "Oh, I like to fly but I don't need to be entertained." Of course, I wasn't selling entertainment radios. I was selling radios which could use the facilities established by the government for the guidance of airplanes—the radio range stations. But pilots didn't even know these were in existence, so it wasn't a case of them buying my radio or Narco's or RCA's radio—they didn't even know that radios would be helpful to them. It took years for them to adopt radios.

What about people who want to start their own businesses today?

There is just as much opportunity to succeed and be independent as there ever was in the history of time. Anyone who wants to go into business for himself must realize that this way you work the hardest. When you work for someone else and 5:00 comes, you go home. But when you work for yourself, 5:00 is when you start to put in the final touches that make you a success. You should try to learn as many things as you can, the more things you know about the more valuable you become to yourself and your boss.

It's the little things in business that are important to know—one should know something about the law, but whenever there's any doubt it's a lot cheaper in the long run to hire a good lawyer. If you're going into business, paid-for advice is worth more than free advice—there's an old saying that advice is worth just what it costs you. It's important to learn everything you can, read everything you can, and remember that your education is never going to be completed—right up until the time you die. Knowledge can never hurt anyone, and you don't have to go to school to get knowledge.

I think you also have to be careful not to become a conformist—because a conformist in any respect is just a sheep. If one sheep runs and dives over a precipice, the whole flock will end up over that precipice. That's the nature of sheep: They do what everyone else is doing. It's important to do what you think is right, not what everyone else thinks is right.

If you had your life to live again, are there any changes you'd make?

Facetiously, I would want to live my life in order to misspend it again. The only change I'd make is that next time I'd get all the schooling I could possibly get. I'd go to high school and work for the highest marks. I'd be best in the class if my capability permitted it, if hard work, if digging, or researching would do it. From college, I would go on for a Ph.D. It wouldn't mean anything from the standpoint of making money, but it would give me an opportunity to demonstrate my intellect—give me an opportunity to think clearly. I would have majored in mathematics. As it is now, I have to depend on others' abilities in math. I have to think in much simpler terms than I would if I had had a more thorough education. There is no substitute for a basic education because things are becoming so complex. I grew up with a technology that was becoming more complex, and today it has advanced so far that there's no chance of doing what I did. You've got to start not from ground zero, but pretty high now. It's amazing how much knowledge you can accumulate in school today. And the more knowledge you have, the greater your possibilities of enjoying life.

Mr. Lear, thank you. 

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Bill Lear Interview