Life Stories: Arthur Humphrey was lifelong innovator and family man

CorrespondentDecember 22, 2013 

  • Arthur Lee Humphrey

    Born: Aug. 21, 1922

    Family: Marries Dorothy Hamilton Humphrey in 1950, and they have four children: David Humphrey of Richardson, Texas; Allee Humphrey of New Bern; Nancy Humphrey McAndrew of Elgin, Texas; and Bill Humphrey of Boulder, Colo. After a brief stint working in Baltimore, he raised his family in Cary and retired to New Bern in 2011.

    Military: Served in the U.S. Navy 1944 to 1946.

    Career: His early years were spent both working for major companies like Carolina Power & Light and Martin Aircraft (now Lockheed Martin), as well as working for himself, before he committed to long-term self-employment. He founded numerous technological companies over the years, one called Digitrols with some partners in Baltimore. He later created companies like Time Sign Inc. and Humphrey Electronics in North Carolina.

    Died: Nov. 13

In the late 1950s, Arthur Humphrey noticed it was hard for his mother-in-law to get up and down from her chair to change the channel on the television.

So he did something about it.

Humphrey built a remote control. Granted, it was not the wireless sort that became commonplace years later, but it did allow her to flip between channels without walking to the television. He ran wires underneath the flooring between the television and the remote control, which he positioned just beside his mother-in-law’s favorite chair.

Later, when remote controls became standard issue, his family would look back and see this as yet another example of how he was both a masterful innovator and a loving family man.

Humphrey, who died last month at 91, spent his career inventing products that were often ahead of his time, though few would know it. His family said he was so focused – to a fault, perhaps – on creating his products, that the marketing and patenting of things was never a priority.

Still, he was a man who followed his passions and was ahead of the curve in terms of his family, as well. His wife said he was changing the diapers of their four children from the start – a rarity, she added, for their generation.

Humphrey was raised in Warsaw, and his mother died when he was 16. She had a small catering business; when she felt ill, he helped her bake cakes after school.

“He was industrious from day one,” said Dorothy Humphrey, his wife of 63 years. As a child he picked strawberries, raised chickens, delivered newspapers, worked at a ten-cent store and ran the local movie projector.

Humphrey knew he wanted to study engineering and nearly graduated from N.C. State University, but the English courses stood in his way. He could do his math assignments with a fountain pen, but “he took English courses over and over,” Dorothy Humphrey said. “I think he might have had dyslexia.”

His college studies were interrupted by World War II, and he spent three years on a Navy ship in charge of all the radios on the boats in his flotilla, which was stationed in the Pacific. He told his wife that on the way home, the radar broke down on his ship. He was the lone volunteer willing to climb the mast to make the repairs.

“He said he was so anxious to get home it was worth doing,” Dorothy Humphrey said.

He worked for Carolina Power & Light early in his career. Later, he was the chief engineer of Raleigh’s first television station, and he played a pivotal role in helping to put that station, WNAO, on the air. He also helped convert it to color. His wife remembers sitting on her couch with three of their children eagerly awaiting the first color broadcast of “Captain Kangaroo.”

Humphrey later worked in Baltimore at Martin Aircraft. But after a few years, he established one of the companies he would own, Digitrols. He and his partners manufactured and designed electronics equipment that was then sold to larger companies like General Electric.

Among his inventions was a “step-scanner,” his wife said, which allowed a commercial X-ray machine to automatically make adjustments without the need for a technician. He also proposed a mail-sorting device to the Baltimore post office, but he was turned down. A similar automated system would become widespread a few years later.

“He was always ahead of his time,” Dorothy Humphrey said.

Though it seemed Humphrey’s career was wrought with ideas that could have been more, his family said he never showed any frustration or resentment.

But his wife still wonders; he was so even-tempered, he never would have shown those feelings.

Bob Rowland worked with him at Humphrey Electronics, a company Humphrey founded in Cary after leaving Baltimore. He and a few employees made circuit boards from scratch. He said Humphrey was among the kindest, more supportive mentors he’s ever had.

“He was so creative that he liked to put a lot of time and money into creating new products and wasn’t quite as interested in manufacturing and filling orders we already had,” Rowland said with a chuckle.

“I’ve talked to him, even just a year or so ago, and he was still thinking of new ideas and things to do. He stayed up with the technology.”

Humphrey also started a company called Time Sign Inc.

“It sold time and temperature signs like you see on – or used to see, prior to smartphones – banks and other buildings,” his son, Bill Humphrey, said. “My dad designed, fabricated and built them entirely on his own.”

Though his ideas never made millions, the legacy he left his family was priceless. His children said he was willing to do anything for them, and everyone knew how he felt.

“I don’t think a day went by when he didn’t tell me he loved me or how cute I was,” Dorothy Humphrey said.

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