When Robert Carpenter was 14 his father told him a story about a truck that lost control due to the air brake hoses being improperly connected to the trailer. The truck jackknifed and killed a young boy.
As first reported by Elizabeth Dinan of the Portsmouth Herald, roughly eight years later in 1958 Carpenter found himself in Japan as a member of the U.S. Air Force. He was tasked with managing the 100-vehicle fleet of his unit’s transportation division.
In addition to shuffling visiting dignitaries about the base, he also served as a military driving instructor, and was constantly reminding his students about the importance of proper brake line connections on vehicles hauling large trailers with air brake systems.
Just to provide a quick overview, there are two connections that join a trailer’s brake system to the system of the towing vehicle. One connection carries air to the trailer’s tanks and the other provides pressure for the brakes. If these lines are connected to the wrong receiver on the truck, the brakes may not release correctly or they could lock-up, causing the vehicle and trailer to go out of control.
Further complicating things are the fact that these lines and connections are basically identical.
That’s where 22-year-old Airman Second Class Carpenter enters the picture. He began marking the connections with red and blue crayons to prevent improper connections.
The tactic worked and the rest, as they say, is history. The same red and blue color indicators were adopted universally by the Air Force and are the standard for all tractor trailers today.
Carpenter’s lifetime compensation for an idea that probably saved thousands of lives and millions of man-hours … was $20. He admits to not even thinking about a patent and was happy to receive more than a week’s pay for his “military suggestion award”.
There are currently more than 5.5 million semi trailers registered in the U.S. and annual production over the last 25 years has averaged more than 225,000 units – all carrying Carpenter’s color-coded air brake connections.
During my time in the Army I was introduced to the 7 core principles of leadership – one of them being Selfless Service. I can’t think of a better embodiment of that principle than Robert Carpenter.