November 1, 2012

Well done, Mr. Fitch

An obituary in the NYT:
He seemed bathed in golden sunlight, this John Cooper Fitch, who put on goggles and a polo helmet and drove racing cars as fast as anybody in the world, including his sometime partner, Stirling Moss. He shot a newly introduced German jet from the sky in World War II, raced yachts, built his own sports cars. 
At 70, John Cooper Fitch set a speed record for driving backward. 
Eva Peron, the legendary Evita, kissed him after he won the 1951 Grand Prix of Argentina. His friend George Barker, the poet, described him as “a tall Jack with the sun on his wrist and a sky stuffed up his sleeve.” 
Mr. Fitch, a lanky, graceful man who died on Monday at 95, put it more simply: “I’ve always needed to go fast.” ...

A couple of years ago, I was reading up on creativity, which seems like a morass of the unmeasurable and barely definable. There's artistic creativity, technological creativity, and so forth. So, I came up with the idea that one indisputable form of creativity is to invent something useful that could have been invented previously. The best example I could come up with are those garbage cans with increasing amounts of sand in them in front of bridge abutments and other places motorists can get killed. 

I assumed the guy who invented it was probably just some guy doing his job who happened to have a sudden flash of inspiration. Instead, the inspiration turned out to be so spectacular that nobody would believe it if you put it into a movie.
As glamorous as his racing life was — Mr. Fitch led Corvette’s first racing team and was the only American to join Mercedes’s fabled stable of drivers — his greatest achievement can be found on public highways. He invented the Fitch Inertial Barrier, a cluster of plastic barrels filled with varying amounts of sand that progressively slow and cushion a car in a crash. Devised in the 1960s and commonly positioned at exit ramps and abutments along interstates, the barrier is believed to have saved more than 17,000 lives.

I bet it's approaching 100,000 lives saved worldwide. 
... Speed Age magazine named him Sports Car Driver of 1953.

A test of the Fitch Inertial Barrier, barrels filled with sand that cushion a blow.
Mr. Fitch was soon recruited to join the Mercedes-Benz racing team, which was using victories on the track to help propel the company to a postwar resurgence. ... 
The same year, on June 11, 1955 Mr. Fitch was teamed with Pierre Levegh in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race (which Fitch had won in 1953]. Ten minutes before Mr. Fitch was to take over the car, it went out of control, veered into the crowd and burst into flames, killing Mr. Levegh and more than 80 spectators in the most catastrophic accident in motor sports history. 
The horror of the crash motivated Mr. Fitch to develop safety barriers, including one for the walls of racetracks to deflect a car and soften its impact. For the highway barrier, he began with liquor crates, filling them with different amounts of sand and then crashing into them himself at speeds of up to 70 m.p.h. to figure out what worked best. 
In addition to saving lives, the Fitch Inertial Barrier — typically consisting of yellow sand-filled plastic barrels — saves an estimated $400 million a year in property damage and medical expenses, the National Science Foundation says.


29 comments:

jody said...

i don't think creativity is unmeasurable. it can be studied and analyzed in domain specific ways, for sure. and in psychology, there is the investigation of raw creativity: novel problem solving. perhaps this is the g factor of creativity, perhaps not, but that is the way i look at if for now, lacking any kind of theory.

certainly you can devise novel problem solving tests the way intelligence tests have been written. there's already some exploration of this topic not only in the world of research psychology, but in video games.

you put the subject into situations which they have never encountered before, and as the novel tests get progressively more difficult, and require more and more out of the box thinking to overcome, the less creative people begin failing and dropping out.

i remember one we used to use was tower of hanoi, a good introductory novel problem for most subjects because most people aren't famlliar with it. but the key would be to present a battery of novel problems. once they become more familiar with a particular problem then you might be veering into measuring some other ability like memory or math faculty.

getting them to build or create things from scratch to solve the problem often avoids that confounding effect. but structuring the tests that way has already revealed a phenomenon that could be called object fixation or object persistance. if you give somebody a bag full of stuff, just a jumble of random objects, and ask them to build something to overcome some problem (put out the fire 12 feet up on the wall using only the 6 objects in this bag), then the average person has trouble seeing most objects as anything other than what they are normally use for. a hammer is for hitting things, a box is for storing stuff in, and so forth. the solution to the problem can often hinge on not seeing a hammer as a hammer.

and of course, there is the HBD aspect, where it's clearly very measurable, the overall creativity difference between various groups. perhaps you could not use integers to put an exact number on creativity value of group A versus group B, but an ordinal rank is evident. most groups create almost nothing in aggregate, whereas the europeans create almost everything.

jody said...

steve, just talking about cars, i can think of one right away. the brake light which is now required to be put on the rear deck of the back window.

that rear deck brake light, which didn't exist when i was growing up, but which could have, had become standard on every car by like 1995 or so. this reduced the number of rear end collisions at stop lights and stop signs. nothing would have prevented this feature from being on cars in 1950. it was technically possible back then but nobody was doing it.

i know in the world of small arms this is something which happens from time to time. there is nothing...then, BAM, there is a new gun design, which is revolutionary and changes handheld weapons.

afterwards, after it has been widely adopted and made the previous equipment obsolete, the mechanical engineering and material science of the new gun is considered obvious and self evident. hindsight is always 20 20. but a more rigorous examination of the facts will show that the weapon could have been developed decades earlier - all of the mechanical engineering principles and materials were available then, just that nobody had thought of the new small arm yet.

earlier this year during the george zimmerman fiasco, zimmerman's handgun was discovered to be a kel tec 9mm. kel tecs are designed and manufactured by george george kellgren, a swedish immigrant to the US. some of his handgun desigs are fairly radical and have changed the small arms industry - when his new handgun designs have come out over the last 20 years, they've lead to most of the major manufacturers making their own copies, almost overnight creating new categories of weaspons and obsoleting others. his P32, P3AT, PF11, and PF9 designs have been the basis for an explosion in small carry .380 and 9mm semi-automatics. there are now millions more people carrying these small handguns than there were even 10 years ago.

but kellgren's guns could have been designed 30 years ago - the materials, machine tools, and mechanical engineering principles were all available in 1982 for this stuff. this is probably analogous to gaston glock and his glock 17 handgun, which probably could have been made 15 years earlier, but it just wasn't, until he did.

George said...

When he was thirsty did he drink XX?

Hacienda said...

Good man, Fitch.

Some of Steve Sailor's conceits.

science becomes SCIENCE.
a barrier becomes CREATIVITY.
a blog becomes WHITE's SALVATION.
a gold course becomes METAPHOR for MANKIND's EVOLUTION.
a black man is A BLACK MAN.




Anonymous said...

Mr. Fitch sounds like an extraordinary man and one who got more out of life than most of us even dream of. With regard to inventions that could have been invented earlier, consider the phonograph. All you need is a cone to concentrate sound vibrations, a stylus to imprint them, a device to move the stylus forward at a constant rate, and an appropriate recording medium. Before plastics, such materials as ivory or melted and reformed amber might well have served the purpose. If the Greeks had been a little cl;everer we might be able to listen to the Socratic dialogues as they happened! This observation is not original with me but I can't remember the source.

nsam said...

I wonder how 20th century inventors compare to this guy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isambard_Kingdom_Brunel

Mr. Anon said...

"His friend George Barker, the poet, described him as “a tall Jack with the sun on his wrist and a sky stuffed up his sleeve.”"

A good friend, perhaps,......but a crappy poet.

pat said...

When I was a young teen I read Road & Track religiously. I also saved the old issues and re-read them.

One day looking through a year old magazine I came across a big two page spread on the Grand Prix drivers. There were about eight pictures of some of the best drivers of the day. But when I re-read it it wasn't of that day it was of a day a year earlier.

All of the drivers shown were dead.

Gran Prix and sportscar racing was incredibly dangerous in those days. Pierre Levegh and the Marquis de Portago were only the most famous. Everybody died.

Fitch helped end all that.

Albertosaurus

acilius said...

"At 70, John Cooper Fitch set a speed record for driving backward." I smiled at that. I would have laughed out loud if it had said "At 80, John Cooper Fitch set a speed record for driving backward." See, I know some guys in their 80s who are likely to break Mr Fitch's record unless their children work up the nerve to take their driving licenses away from them first...

neil craig said...

Cool.

One of Britain's prime ministers said that his greatest achievement was when transport minister he had signed the order to have cats eyes placed on roads. But not nearly as important as inventing them.

Anonymous said...

Was Fitch the first person to think of it, or the first person of high status to think of it? Most people are hostile to new ideas, especially if they come from people low on the totem pole. Creativity and respect for authority and willingness to follow rules are in some ways at odds with each other, and to a large extent I think we favor the latter more than the former.

I can think of a few areas of historical inquiry where the top professor in that field had a lot of dumb ideas, and that set research back by about 50 years because nobody wanted to challenge his authority with "creative" new ideas.

Anonymous said...

jody - I was thinking a really simple example would be the Picatinny rail. Standard for US/NATO forces. Its akin to a USB port for weapons. All accessories attach to a gun via one of these rails. Blindingly obvious but its taken years to be adopted.

Anonymous said...

Also re what jody said about seeing different uses for things - Years ago I remember seeing smallish cigars sold in test tubes. A brilliant idea, buy a cheap off-the-shelf, mass produced product and design your product (cigar) to fit inside it. Not earth shattering but still clever.

It set me trying to think if there were other things that could be reused in the same way. Obviously stuff like bolts, nails, screws, fuses, bulbs, electronic components etc are highly standardized and generic. But what if other stuff could be made to do two jobs?

as said...

He's so exciting. I wish I could have married him.

Anonymous Rice Alum #4 said...

At 11/1/12 7:03 AM, Anonymous said...

With regard to inventions that could have been invented earlier, consider the phonograph. All you need is a cone to concentrate sound vibrations, a stylus to imprint them, a device to move the stylus forward at a constant rate, and an appropriate recording medium....

There's a 1979 short story by Gregory Benford called "Time Shards," where modern day scientists hear the voice of a medieval potter.

Anonymous said...

getting them to build or create things from scratch to solve the problem often avoids that confounding effect. but structuring the tests that way has already revealed a phenomenon that could be called object fixation or object persistance. if you give somebody a bag full of stuff, just a jumble of random objects, and ask them to build something to overcome some problem (put out the fire 12 feet up on the wall using only the 6 objects in this bag), then the average person has trouble seeing most objects as anything other than what they are normally use for. a hammer is for hitting things, a box is for storing stuff in, and so forth. the solution to the problem can often hinge on not seeing a hammer as a hammer.


Problem solving is not the same thing as creativity. There may sometimes be an element of creativity to problem solving, but the arrow does not point in the opposite direction.

Anonymous said...

With regard to inventions that could have been invented earlier, consider the phonograph. All you need is a cone to concentrate sound vibrations, a stylus to imprint them, a device to move the stylus forward at a constant rate, and an appropriate recording medium.

Well, you're wrong. You could not record a persons voice with such a device.

But even if you could, what would you play the record back on? What you have described is not a phonograph - which is a machine for converting minute physical movements into sound.

diana said...

Can someone invent a cheaper seawall?

Anonymous said...

There was a detailed cable channel special on the LeMans catastrophe a couple of years ago that included interviews with Fitch. He saw the crash and as he described it on the program, the intensity of emotion after all these decades was undiminished. I can see where the passion came from to reform racing safety, although it took another fifteen years and a rebellion by the Grand Prix Drivers association before it really took root.
Also in fairness to LeVegh, Fitch said LeVegh did not lose control. The accident was sparked by Jaguar driver Mike Hawthorn who cut off a slower Austin-Healey causing it to veer into LeVegh's path. There was nowhere for LeVegh to go and his Mercedes was launched off the back of the Healey into a retaining wall then into the spectators.

beowulf said...

"When he was thirsty did he drink XX?"

Ha ha, I thought the same thing!
http://youtu.be/IxgiTeXKOOc

Love the one where he's running away from the fox hunters... a fox in his arms. :o)

beowulf said...

So, I came up with the idea that one indisputable form of creativity "is to invent something useful that could have been invented previously... I assumed the guy who invented it was probably just some guy doing his job who happened to have a sudden flash of inspiration."

Justice Douglas sort of made the same point with his "flash of genius" doctrine (which Congress reversed in the 1950s when it revised the patent law).

The doctrine... held that the inventive act had to come into the mind of an inventor in a "flash of genius" and not as a result of tinkering. "The new device, however useful it may be, must reveal the flash of creative genius, not merely the skill of the calling. If it fails, it has not established its right to a private grant on the public domain."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_of_genius

Paul Mendez said...

Obviously, Fitch wasn't very intelligent, or he'd have been listless and bored all the time like Barack Obama.

Paul Mendez said...

his P32, P3AT, PF11, and PF9 designs...

jody, don't you mean his p32, p3at, pf11 and pf9 designs?

jody said...

"I can think of a few areas of historical inquiry where the top professor in that field had a lot of dumb ideas, and that set research back by about 50 years because nobody wanted to challenge his authority with "creative" new ideas."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Debate_(astronomy)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlow_Shapley

this sounds like 1920 and the great debate in astronomy, where the leading guy in the field at the time, harlow shapley, argued that the milky way was the entire universe. he considered the idea that there were other galaxies to be preposterous, bordering on completely ludicrous.

shapley was hardly just the main guy in astronomy at the time, though. he's the guy who figured out the sun is in a random, unimportant location in the milky way and not at the center of the galaxy. he advanced the field of astronomy significantly during his era.

when hubble came out however, shapley attacked his ideas viciously. his position was, anybody who thought there was more than one galaxy was a kook, a total quack. the idea that there was more than one galaxy was so totally wrong, it had to be ridiculed.

shapley was not able to have a silencing effect on the galaxy hypothesis for very long. by 1935, hubble had not only presented lots of evidence there were more galaxies outside the milky way, but he had proven it, and introduced radical new observations about the universe. chiefly, that not only was the universe bigger than we thought, but it was moving apart, establishing the concept of red shift.

Gene Berman said...

The somewhat mysterious concept we call "creativity" is somewhat akin to "entrepreneurial ability."

Both are intimately associated with (but not very explicable by) an understanding of economic thinking. Whether in creation of a new mechanism, an improvement in an existing mechanism, or opening a new pizza joint, there is a shared goal of achieving "profit" and avoiding loss. It's not merely a matter of enrichment: "profit" is simply a benefit to some person or group NOT offset by costs outrunning the derived benefit.

Both (creativity/entrepreneurship) are intimately related (dependent, actually) to "the market." Fitch's invention would likely be useless in an era without automobile (Ben Franklin is credited with saying, "Neccesity is the mother of invention.")

The academic psychologists are "barking up the wrong tree" with their experiments: they are detecting (and, perhaps, measuring)
something-- just not what they hope to detect and measure).

And, although the world markets are always eagerly ready for the next creative (or entrepreneurial) "breakthrough," the world, in a certain sense, lacks neither--already has as much as could ever use of either--as a matter of fact. We can (as someone
has suggested) view the world as "covered by an invisible pile of potentially useful invention
reaching the stratosphere."

It's actually simple. Literally everywhere in civilized portions of the globe, building and maintainence of roads is a problem.
People complain about roads that degrade too quickly after being built, potholes not repaired as quickly, wear/tear on vehicles, etc. Simple to fix! Just double the designed road thickness--the thicker the road, the longer it'll last. But here intrudes a problem:
a thicker road COSTS more--so the "invention" or stroke of "creativity" is meaningless--idle conjecture, as it were. But, in an only slightly different world--one in which concrete or asphalt had become much cheaper because of new discoveries of raw material, discovery of new and different materials for purposes which formerly required asphalt or concrete, etc.,--one can simply grab one of those pieces of invention or creativity "laying around, piled to the sky," and put it to use. Or, one's "creativity" might lead to a new pizza joint in a town already served by 6. "No way," say his friends and family; "no way," says a banker; "no way," says virtually everyone he asks. But, if he persists, accumulates the required funds, and estabishes the place successfully (i.e., profitably), he's entrepreneurial (and, I'd say, "creative"). On the other hand, if he accumulates the required funds, establishes the
joint, and fails, we all just say, "See--I told you so!" (and, privately, call him a "loser," whether we feel sympathy for his now-impoverished plight or not.

Mr. Anon said...

"pat said...

All of the drivers shown were dead.

Gran Prix and sportscar racing was incredibly dangerous in those days. Pierre Levegh and the Marquis de Portago were only the most famous. Everybody died.

Fitch helped end all that."

I would hazard the guess that there are not nearly as many people interested in Grand Prix racing nowadays. Back in the 60s, racing was a big deal - there were movies about it big name stars like Steve McQueen and James Garner. Now it doesn't seem to capture the public's imagination. Perhaps it's having become less dangerous is the cause of that.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, Fitch wasn't very intelligent, or he'd have been listless and bored all the time like Barack Obama.

Brilliant Paul, I really did LOL.

Anonymous said...

jody - "shapley was hardly"


Somehow, I think there might be a joke in there somewhere.

Whitehall said...

Fitch also took the Chevy Corvair, tweeked it, and sold it as a competitive sports car for thousands less than a contemporary Porsche.