Today, a gear is a gear is a gear. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Gertrude Stein and her
lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas, finished WW-I
driving a Red Cross ambulance. Stein couldn't deal
with military officialdom. Toklas couldn't deal
with the vehicle.
Stein had all the mechanical talent. She could
field-strip the primitive ambulance, and she loved
driving it. So Toklas handled the military while
Stein got on famously with two American mechanics.
They teased her every time the ambulance made any
noise. "That French chauffeur is just shifting
gears," they'd say. Well, they had good reason to
blame the gears.
There was no automatic transmission or power
steering. We didn't even have synchromesh gears.
You had to double-clutch to shift. It took an
athlete's strength and skill to do that without
Early in the war, an American engineer, William C.
Stevens, heard about women ambulance drivers. He
designed electric motor control systems. He also
knew how clumsy gearshifts were.
Stevens knew that driving any kind of vehicle
sorely tested a woman's upper body strength. It's
no wonder Toklas disliked driving. Stein was the
exception, not the rule. If Stevens could simplify
shifting, he would almost double the number of
people who could drive motor vehicles.
So he used what he'd learned from electric motor
systems. He developed his "preselective
gear-shift." It was pretty fancy. A box on the
steering column had five buttons. They were marked
Neutral, Reverse, and Gears 1, 2 and 3. All you did
was push the button and shove in the clutch. The
gears would shift.
As early as 1916, two now forgotten cars used
Stevens's invention. They were the Apperson and the
Premier. By the early thirties, Oldsmobile had made
the first Hydromatic system. It was the precursor
of the automatic transmission.
A few years later, the Bendix company made the
precursor of the synchromesh system. Synchromesh
was basic to the manual transmissions we've used
ever since. Still, Stevens's push-button systems
made a brief comeback in the '50s.
I was driving army trucks by then. And the gear
shifting problem was still far from solved. I had
terrible trouble with the ton-and-a-half truck.
That experience leaves me filled with admiration
for the adroit and practical Gertrude Stein. They
also call me to honor William C. Stevens for
recognizing the problem and putting us on the way
to solving it -- while the automobile was still
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds