Whether you call it a suicide ball, or a necker, granny, or Brodie knob, it’s all the same thing: a free-spinning knob affixed to a steering wheel designed to help drivers more quickly and easily muscle around a non-power-assisted steering wheel. And I just purchased the one above for use in my 1929 Ford Tudor Prohibition Sleeper.
But as the patent’s own description makes clear, this was not really the first spinner, rather it was a spinner with “improvements.” These improvements were intended to make for easier and quicker installation without the need for drilling holes in the steering wheel, flexibility of positioning and repositioning the apparatus, and non-interference with the driver’s hands as they work around the rim during normal use.
Then I discovered, perhaps, I thought, the first device for providing human-powered mechanical advantage to the struggle of steering motor vehicles at low speeds. Daniel E. Norcross filed for its patent on July 8, 1926. Though Thorpe’s design was remarkably similar to it, the most notable exception was its improvement of placing the knob inside of the rim, out of the way.
Wait… But Norcross’ design didn’t call for drilling any holes, so that couldn’t have been the inspiration for Thorp’s improved no-marr design. There must’ve been another, earlier, knob…
More sifting through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s records — which are blessedly available online through Google and provide the ultimate day-destroying rabbit hole for curious people — revealed patent #1,522,879 below, filed by L.G. Gregory on January 13, 1925. This one required installers drill directly into the steering wheel rim, so surely this is the design Thorpe, and likely Norcross, was reacting to, and must be the progenitor of Steering Wheelicus Spinnicus Knobicus.
But no. The earliest patented suicide ball appears to be #1,555,599, below, filed by the mellifluously named Ozell A. Ontiveros on May 29, 1924.
Surprisingly more complicated than subsequent iterations, it has provisions for bi-directional ratcheting of the knob (here referred to as a “handle” and “lever”) to the most advantageous position given a driver’s immediate needs.
The stated claim of this patent was a device for assisting in the wheeling around of heavy trucks, where “the driver usually requires both hands to turn the steering wheel when turning a corner, but at the same time should have one hand free to give the turning signal.”
When mechanical signaling took the place of gesturing, but greater speeds began requiring more frequent shifting between gears, the knob continued to be necessary, as we’ve seen above.
Then, with a little more brain rattling, we remembered seeing some sepia-toned pictures of the contraptions piloted by the famed land-speed racer with the great French name: Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, like the electric Jeantaud automobile of 1899 below.
Clearly, the history of the necker knob goes back a ways, and every time I thought I’d found the first, I discovered an earlier iteration. In the end, I was not entirely convinced that I had succeeded, or that the first one had even been patented, so I decided to step outside the dusty, virtual mite-bitten precincts of the Patent Office’s database and try another approach.
I wondered if the tiller apparatus on the earliest cars — as seen below on the Benz Patent-Motorwagen of 1886 replica in the Hemmings garage — might have provided the inspiration for it. While that old tiller design did not provide the fine steering control of the yet-to-be-used wheel, it was exceedingly simple and offered a way to leverage the directional wheels on the frequently rocky or rutted early roads.
By the way, the first person to gain public attention sawing a steering wheel — Alfred Vacheron — did so in 1894 on his Panhard in the world’s first organized automobile race from Paris to Rouen. The Panhard’s designers no doubt decided to employ a steering wheel on their car because it would provide the driver more precise control at speed, and being gripped by two hands instead of one, would better resist being wrenched free by the jarring impacts of the rough roads.
As roads improved, motor vehicles became capable of greater speeds and the steering wheel caught on in automobiles manufactured for the non-racing general public. Perhaps as that happened people missed, at low speeds anyway, the exceptional bell-crank-like leverage provided by the tiller, and the inventor of the steering wheel knob took his or her queue from the memory of it.
Even as I was feeling proud of myself for speculating about a potential steering knob/tiller connection, I couldn’t shake the idea that I had seen free-spinning knobs and pegs used on wheels in yet even earlier applications. Then I remembered — of course! — the engine rooms in ships and submarines and the boilers of steam locomotives, with their myriad brass wheel valves.
But those didn’t fit the bill entirely. In principle of providing an operator leverage and speed in turning a wheel, they did, but not in the application of a mechanism for steering a vehicle. But now I felt, more certain than ever, that the key was here and that the old, familiar Brodie knob actually predates the gas-powered automobile.
Note the knob/lever/handle on the steering wheel of this very early steam traction engine produced by a British firm founded by the “father of the traction engine,” Thomas Aveling. The granny knob is older than granny’s granny.
Finally, an earlier Aveling and Porter design (below) suggests the ultimate origins in the primordial soup of the 1800 and 1700s… a time when there appears to have been interbreeding among various species of transportation.
Image courtesy of Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History.
This steamroller is one of the manufacturer’s earliest non-track-riding designs, dates to the year before the aforementioned traction engine, and features a wheel with not one, but eight leverage-giving handles placed around the outside of the rim, radiating from the central hub. The exact design of a wheel of a sea-going ship… which is also, not coincidentally, the vehicle that tiller control first appeared on.
So, in our accidental study of this implement of steering assistance — this surprisingly long (even to us!) exploration of Steering Wheelicus Spinnicus Knobicus — what we have discovered is a kind of evolution, a process of DNA sharing and natural selection, of traits appearing and disappearing and reappearing and changing form as the demands of a variety of environments tested and shaped the solutions of innovators.
This evolution didn’t end with Thorpe’s design of 1936, of course, as we are all familiar with suicide balls. Continuing a search of the Patent Office would reveal many subsequent versions, even after power steering was introduced commercially by Chrysler in 1951.
Oh, and contrary to popular belief, these driving aids are legal in most states, and variations continue to be used on the steering wheels of tractors, semis, and cars piloted by handicap drivers.