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Wisner during homecoming festivities in October 2015 at Hillsdale College. (Photo credit Hillsdale College)
Wisner during home­coming fes­tiv­ities in October 2015 at Hillsdale College. (Photo credit Hillsdale College)

When Hillsdale stu­dents crank up the radio and hit “cruise” to return to school, they benefit from the work of Daniel Wisner, a Hillsdale College alumnus whose invention of auto­matic cruise control smoothes the ride for road trippers and con­tinues to pave the way for future research in auto­mated driving tech­nology.
Daniel Wisner ’55 holds 15 patents in various fields of elec­tronics, but his most well-known invention is the “Speed Control for Motor Vehicles,” also known as elec­tronic cruise control, issued by the U.S. Patent Office in 1971. Wisner’s invention uses electric pulses to keep a vehicle moving at a con­stant speed, and to maintain that speed when the car goes up and down inclines.
Wisner, a quiet man now in his 80s, is hard of hearing. His wife, Marilyn, repeated ques­tions into his ear, and he responded in a mea­sured, thoughtful voice. He has told this story before to college buddies and to orga­nizers of Hillsdale College alumni reunions.
It began in the 1940s in North Adams, Michigan, when young Wisner fol­lowed his cousin into a tool shop. The way he described it, Wisner’s childhood sounded almost idyllic, the perfect starting place for a serious, hard­working boy who dreamt of becoming a mechanic.
“My next door neighbor had a body shop and a truck garage,” Wisner said. “A couple blocks over was a blacksmith’s shop. Across the street was a tool­maker.”
Wisner credited his success in science to these handymen, mentors who taught him how to fix machines while most boys his age were playing baseball.
“I worked with them side by side,” Wisner said. “They treated me like an adult. If you show you’re inter­ested in what they’re inter­ested in, they’ll be happy to teach you what they know.”
Wisner enrolled at Hillsdale College in 1951, planning to use his expertise with machines to become a mechanical engineer.
In the 1950s, Hillsdale College boasted about 500 stu­dents, which meant that Wisner’s math and physics pro­fessors some­times taught lessons in the student union over cups of coffee. Wisner’s physics pro­fessor, Jacob Olthoff, became a mentor much like the men who wel­comed the inquis­itive young boy into their work­shops. Olthoff encouraged him to explore the exciting new field of elec­tronics.
Because Wisner had to pay for his edu­cation and support his mother at home, he treated college like a full-time job. He took his finals early and drove big rig trucks across the Midwest during breaks. Aside from joining the reli­gious fra­ternity and the soci­ology club on campus, Wisner only knew other Hillsdale College stu­dents from classes.
In a way, then, the hard work that helped Wisner excel in math and physics also make it dif­ficult for his friends to share in his success, Wisner said.
“This was so long ago,” Wisner said. “A lot of the people I worked with are long gone. But you can talk to my friend Fred Miller. He knows what I was really like in college.”
Fred Miller ’55, an English major and former editor of The Hillsdale Col­legian, took math classes with Wisner while courting his future wife, Carol, who grad­uated with a math­e­matics degree in 1956.
“We didn’t see him that much,” Miller said. “My wife and I took a lot of math classes together, and Dan was in a couple of those. The dif­fi­culty is, Dan lived at home, not on campus. And he took his exams early so he could have more time to work.”
For years after his grad­u­ation, no one at Hillsdale College heard much from Wisner.
The Hillsdale Col­legian did check up on Wisner in their “Alumni Corner” column in May 1955: “Dan is at present attending elec­tronic school at Fort Knox, Ken­tucky.”
Equally terse news­paper clip­pings hinted at Wisner’s advanced training in elec­tronics at IBM and his rise as an elec­tronics engineer in com­panies like the National Cash Reg­ister Company and the Radio Cor­po­ration of America.
But, as Wisner told it, the invention of cruise control, now a feature of every modern vehicle, is no big deal.
“A company that made high-end cars came to RCA and asked if they were inter­ested in working on cruise control,” Wisner said. “I had figured out a way to do that memory for cruise control cheap. It was a matter of a few days, and the cruise control was done.”
But the simple genius of Wisner’s work took a while to catch on. In the late 1960s, the world of elec­tronics rapidly evolved, and RCA hes­i­tated to invest in an invention that they feared would soon be out­dated. It took 20 years for Motorola to make an inte­grated circuit that used Wisner’s invention.
“Now they’re in cars every­where,” Wisner said.
In 2005, after 50 years away from Hillsdale College, Wisner’s work quite lit­erally brought his old class­mates back together as they traveled to their class reunion.
“When we went back for our 50th 10 years ago, we recon­nected,” Miller said. “We talked about being in class together. Dan told me a lot about his work, how he developed cruise control. We learned more about him from the reunions than we ever knew in school.”
For Wisner’s 50th class reunion, Hillsdale College’s Alumni Mag­azine pub­lished a para­graph rec­og­nizing the suc­cesses of the class of 1955, describing Wisner as the inventor of “that well-known auto­motive device, ‘cruise control.’”
During home­coming weekend in October 2015, Hillsdale College rec­og­nizes Wisner with a “Dis­tin­guished Alumnus Award” at their 64th Annual Alumni Awards Banquet.
That same weekend, Miller returned to his alma mater for the Tower Light lit­erary publication’s 60th anniversary, and he and Wisner met again. The two remem­bered math classes from years ago, and Wisner looked to the future of his invention, which still evolves more than 40 years after Wisner filed its patent.
“It’s not gonna go away,” Wisner said. “Google and Apple Inc. are working on dri­verless cars. They’re just adding fea­tures to what I did years ago.”
But the key to Wisner’s forward-thinking invention lies in his past, in teachers who were willing to teach a hard­working boy every­thing they knew.
“My Hillsdale College mentors had con­fi­dence in my success and I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to achieve it,” Wisner said.