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Archives at The Museum of Flight

Lear, William P. (William Powell), 1902-1978



  • Existence: 1902-1978

Biographical Note

William P. “Bill” Lear was a prolific inventor with dozens of patents for a variety of machines to his name but is most famous for his work in the aviation field. He produced the Learjet, the first mass-produced business jet, and the Lear Fan, an innovative turboprop plane built from lightweight composite materials. He also helped to develop autopilot and automatic landing systems for jets. But his interests went beyond aviation: he is also known for being the inventor of the 8-track tape cartridge, the car radio, and innovative developments on turbine motors.

Born on June 26, 1902 in Hannibal, Missouri, Bill Lear had a humble background that would belie his later success. His father, Reuben Lear (1878-1955), a teamster and builder, struggled to support his family and had a tumultuous relationship with his wife, Gertrude Elizabeth Powell Lear (1884-1934), and they eventually separated. As a boy Lear taught himself things like electrical engineering and experimented on his own with building radio receivers. Though he never received a high school diploma, his childhood fascination with radios led to work in the field. He lied about his age in order to join the U.S. Navy at age 16. After a brief stint in the Navy and some early business partnerships, he founded his first company, Lear Radio Laboratories. During the Great Depression of the 1920s, Lear’s engineering savvy and business acumen provided him with great success at a time when others struggled. He invented the first practical car radio and the first radio remote control, the “Lazy Boy.” It was during this time that he also bought his first airplane, inspiring him to turn his sights toward flight navigation. Lear invented the Lear-o-scope which allowed pilots to navigate via radio. The Lear-o-scope was used by Amelia Earhart to help her fly from Los Angeles to Mexico City and from there on record-setting flights to New York and Washington, D.C. Lear continued to design navigational devices under his company Lear Avia Inc. with orders from airline companies all over the world.

By 1945 his company had transformed into Lear, Incorporated. Among their products was the Learecorder, cited by the New York Times as “the most versatile home musical reproduction machine ever built.” While the market for his music record and navigation equipment was limited, electromechanical sales kept the company afloat. Lear turned to developing autopilot systems determined to make flying, especially military flight, safer. This led to the development of the F-5 autopilot, for which he won the 1950 Collier Trophy. In the early 1950s, Lear bought a Lockheed Lodestar and massively redesigned it, renaming it Learstar. Its maiden flight was on May 10, 1954 and it was the first reconditioned aircraft to receive Civil Aeronautics Association certification as an airline transport plane. The Learstar was also the fastest twin-engine transport with the longest range under production at the time.

Lear moved his family to Switzerland in 1959 to break into the European market and successfully sold his automatic flight control system for use in Fokker, Fiat, Saab and Caravelle aircraft. Due to disagreements over the design of what would become his iconic Learjet with the Lear Incorporated board, he was forced out of the company in 1962. He then founded yet another company, Swiss American Aviation Corporation, originally based in Switzerland, to continue to develop the Learjet as he envisioned it. Just two years later, Lear renamed the company Lear Jet Corporation and relocated to Wichita, Kansas to build the Learjet which he dreamed would be a lightweight, efficient, and luxurious small business aircraft. The first flight was on October 7, 1963. Just after the Learjet Model 23 was FAA-certified and the company began trading publicly, Lear was inspired by a 4-track automobile dashboard-mounted tape player to improve on the technology, and began work on what would become the 8-track cassette player. His machine was smaller, simpler, and cheaper than the existing options. With new patents acquired, he marketed his radio-tape-player combination, striking a deal with RCA and Ford Motor Company. After selling Lear Jet Corp. to the Gates Rubber Company in April 1967, Lear moved to Reno, Nevada where he switched gears and turned to both land development and steam-powered cars, attempting to improve upon the combustion engine with a steam-powered design.

In his seventies by this point, he suffered from numerous physical ailments which brought on depression, affecting his business ventures. Despite flagging health and because of failures with his steam-motor endeavors, he turned back to aviation. In 1976, he struck a deal with Canadair to develop the LearStar 600, a small, long-distance business jet. Canadair bought the design and evetually renamed the aircraft the Challenger CL-600. Lear worked on the development of the Lear Allegro design, as an improvement on the LearStar 600, hoping to also enter a deal with Canadair. However, they had no interest in the Allegro and ultimately none were ever built. It was then Lear began work on the Lear Fan, a plane innovative because of its all-composite body, Y-shaped tail, and pusher-style propeller.

After three previous marriages and many affairs, Bill Lear had married Moya Olsen in 1942. Though she was not involved in his business at first, she “exerted a stabilizing influence on his volatile life.” In later companies, she held board and executive positions. With his health rapidly declining in the 1970s and the Lear Fan still in development, Lear set up a trust to ensure the continued development of the Lear Fan after his death. Lear eventually died from leukemia in Reno on May 14, 1978. Moya retained a role in the company, as Chairman of the Board, to ensure fulfillment of Bill’s vision. Despite the innovative design of the plane and further investments, the Lear Fan never received FAA certification or went into production.

Over the course of his life Lear received many awards. Among them were the 1950 Collier Trophy from the National Aeronautic Association; the Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia; the Frank M. Hawks Award for an outstanding contribution to aircraft navigation; the 1954 Horatio Alger Award; the Silver Medal of Paris in 1960; and the bronze Thulin Medal from the Swedish Aeronautical Society. While his varied career was full of ups and downs and not all of his ideas came to fruition, biographer Richard Rashke writes, “Lear’s contribution to general aviation…was significant. He and his engineers had pioneered generation after generation of instruments. But even more important, Lear almost single-handedly dragged the whole industry forward with him, challenging its concepts, expanding its horizons, forcing it to see his vision and to improve its products.”


“Bill Lear.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, June 30, 2022. Accessed August 2, 2022.

Rashke, Richard. Stormy Genius: The Life of Aviation's Maverick, Bill Lear. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

“William P. Lear.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed August 9, 2022.

Lear, Moya. An Unforgettable Flight. Reno: Jack Bacon and Company, 1996.

Found in 5 Collections and/or Records:

Biographical Information Files - L

Scope and Contents Individuals whose names begin with L: Lacy, Clay [Pilot, businessman] Folder 1: "An Aviation Romantic," Professional Pilot, April 1985Publicity brochure for Clay Lacy AviationThree decals for ONMI 64 P-51 racer"High-Flying Retirement," Seattle Times, August 13, 1990"Omni/Lacy...Right On!," Air Progress, July 1972Pathfinder...

William P. and Moya Olsen Lear Papers

Identifier: 2000-06-20
Abstract William P. “Bill” Lear was a prolific inventor with dozens of patents for a variety of machines to his name but is most famous for his work in the aviation field. Moya Marie Olsen Lear was a philanthropist, businesswoman, and the wife of aviation pioneer Bill Lear. The collection documents Bill Lear's inventions and career in the fields of radio navigation, aircraft design, the 8-track player, and his efforts at a steam-powered turbine. Materials are predominantly affiliated with Lear’s many...

Jake Schultz Aerocar Film Collection

 Collection — Box: Film Box 5, Reel: 1
Identifier: 2006-10-12
Contents of the Collection The Jake Schultz Aerocar Film Collection is a small collection consisting of one film related to Molt Taylor and the Aerocar III (N100D), circa 1968. The footage includes multiple segments. The first segment depicts Taylor and others on a rocky shoreline at Cape Disappointment, Washington; the Cape Disappointment lighthouse is visible in some shots. The footage then transitions to an unidentified airfield, where Taylor is shown with the Aerocar III. Scenes include the Aerocar being...

Series IX. Lear JeTravel, 1968

Scope and Contents: Lear JeTravel This single-file series documents the first flight of Lear JeTravel airline with two newspaper clippings from the Reno Evening Gazette dated December 5, 1968 and the Nevada State Journal from December 6, 1968. Both articles discuss the inaugural flight, piloted by WPL, and its passengers. The articles also state that the airline planned to offer twice daily service, seven days a week, from the Reno Municipal Airport to the...

Series XV. Personal, 1910-2002, undated

Scope and Contents: Personal The Personal series consists of materials related to WPL’s and MOL’s professional lives but which are not directly tied to any of the companies. The series is divided into four subseries: William P. Lear, Moya Olsen Lear, Lear Family, and General. Each of these has been further broken down and are clarified below. Materials are generally, but not always, arranged by date, with undated items at the...

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