Based on his remarkable career as an inventor and the immeasurable but tremendous value of three creations of his to businesses and millions of individuals — a better golf ball, gas masks, and the industrial adhesive Vulcalock — it seems there should be a historical marker at William Geer’s birthplace and perhaps a museum wing up north, or at least an exhibit featuring his story. And that’s without even considering his greatest invention of all: the airplane-wing deicer.
That’s right, a North Country man, born and raised, did that. Unlike many inventions that are completely replaced by better alternatives in the future, Geer’s device originating nearly 90 years ago remains a standard, as noted in modern B. F. Goodrich Technical Bulletin 101: “Then, as today, the ice removal process is much the same…. the basic operating principle of the pneumatic de-icing boot hasn’t changed.”
Icing was a non-issue in the early days of flight when pilots flew relatively close to the ground, guided by landmarks that were visible and identifiable from lower elevations. In the 1920s, as instrument flying became more common, planes frequently traveled at higher altitudes, where some clouds caused icing, often with tragic results.
That problem, badly in need of solving, was addressed in 1928 by a meeting of top representatives from the Bureau of Standards, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the US Army Air Corps, the US Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, and the Weather Bureau. Their discussions touched on the work of William Geer, officially retired after a career of research and inventing for B. F. Goodrich, but still on the board of directors and continuing to perform research, much of it on behalf of the company.
A year earlier in his own laboratory, Geer, aware of failed attempts by others using various fabrics and ice-retardants, had begun seeking solutions to the icing problem. His efforts showed such promise that in 1929, the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics awarded him a $10,000 grant ($147,000 in 2019) to further pursue his work.
Persistence played a role in the outcome, for Geer, one of the world’s experts on rubber, saw its potential as a key component of deicing. Using a small-scale icing-research tunnel constructed at Cornell, he tested dozens of chemicals and chemical mixes for compatibility with rubber. Many with potential were still found lacking, but he finally landed on a combination that was close—not preventing the formation of ice, but drastically retarding it. While some still formed, it was easily dislodged by the touch of a screwdriver. But the question remained: before it accumulated to dangerous levels, how to effectively and continuously remove the fragile layers of ice that formed while a plane was in flight?
Geer’s answer was “a pneumatic overshoe” that fit over the leading edge of a wing. The device, which became better known as a boot, contained hollow, inflatable tubes. In theory, the treated rubber allowed the formation of thin layers of ice, which could be cracked by expanding the flexible rubber through periodic inflation of the tubes. The final phase was simple: wind against the speeding plane simply blew the ice chunks away. Of course, that was all in theory, with no guarantee it would prove practical.
But that’s exactly what happened. A few test flights confirmed that the boot performed as planned and didn’t affect the plane’s handling. Goodrich built a large, refrigerated wind tunnel, where Geer’s invention was tested, tweaked, and fine-tuned. During other tests on the ground, the cracked ice was removed by wind from the plane’s propeller. Eventually, through extensive trial and error, a good working model was achieved: a timer-activated, motorized pump in the cockpit inflated the tubes and cracked the ice, which blew away. In a review many years later, the New York Times wrote, “Newspaper reports at the time hailed the invention as ‘a victory over one of the aviator’s most dangerous enemies, the ice that forms on the wings of his airplane and sometimes causes it to be wrecked.’”
In early April 1930, the Buffalo Evening News commented on the recent developments: “The test flight was made at Cleveland airport on March 18, 1930. When a coating of ice half an inch thick had been accumulated from the ice-laden clouds, air was applied with a hand pump and the ice broke off in huge chunks. Further test flights confirmed the principle as sound…. The mechanical device … has not been perfected, and according to Dr. Geer, there is much to be done along lines of design. The fundamental principles, however, have been worked out to such an extent that Dr. Geer is optimistic over the future of the device.” He was certainly correct in that regard, for the basic system remains in use today. (The link leads to many short, modern videos demonstrating his method in action.)
Like some of Geer’s other inventions, the impact worldwide was and is massive, but also impossible to calculate. And like any inventor, he was never truly finished working on a project. Among his many patents filed during the ensuing 20 years were several that improved upon methods of plane deicing.
Besides the inventions addressed here were many others patented by Geer: making and shaping various rubber compositions; the pelleting of carbon black (considered a significant achievement); a rubber filter sheet for industrial use; gas-impervious sheet material for making hot-air balloons and other lighter-than-air craft; and an aging oven (they are still widely sold) that performs an important task for researchers and inventors — accurate aging simulations of rubber, plastic, textiles, leather, medical products, and other materials. Since it was first created in 1916, Geer’s oven has frequently been cited in other inventors’ patent applications with the phrase, “Accelerated aging tests were carried out in the Geer aging oven.”
At no time during his life, despite many outstanding accomplishments, was Geer ever considered a high-profile individual, but the spotlight occasionally found him. In 1922, as a recognized leader in the field of rubber research and a vice-president of B. F. Goodrich, he wrote a book, The Reign of Rubber, covering everything from tapping trees to rubber’s role in modern industry. Maintaining lifelong ties with his Potsdam classmates, he eventually became executive chairman of the New York Alumni of the Potsdam Normal School. In 1940, the National Association of Manufacturers, citing his outstanding contributions to industrial research and development, presented him with a National Pioneer Award. In August 1951, Geer, a wealthy man, donated equipment to Cornell for the newly established William C. Geer Laboratory of Rubber and Plastics. A month later, he was presented the prestigious Charles Goodyear Medal for outstanding achievements in the chemistry of rubber.
His research and inventions laid the groundwork for many modern applications involving rubber. Geer and/or his achievements from nearly a century ago are still frequently cited today, including these few examples: the UTC Aerospace Systems bulletin titled, “Give Ice the Boot — Understanding Pneumatic De-Icing”; the US Department of Transportation’s 2015 Advisory Circular, under “Pilot Guide — Flight in Icing Conditions” (the section titled “Deicing Systems” begins with “Pneumatic Boots”); and in NASA’s History Series, “We Freeze to Please: A History of NASA’s Icing Research Tunnel and the Quest for Flight Safety.”
From aging ovens to golf balls to gas masks to pioneering adhesives to plane deicing — William Chauncey Geer’s inventions comprise an impressive body of work. In the pantheon of North Country stars (we do have a pantheon, don’t we?), he surely deserves a place among the very best.
Photos: William Chauncey Geer (Rotarian magazine, 1940); Pneumatic wing boot (US Dept. of Transportation circular, 2015); headlines (Ogdensburg Republican-Journal, 1931); Geer-Type Aging Oven (M&K Co., Ltd.)