Oscar H. Banker - Asadour Sarafian

MEET THE REAL Oscar H. Banker

Oscar H. Banker, born Asadoor Sarafian, was one of America’s most prolific inventors and a pioneer of consumer advocacy. He was the Father of Automatic Transmission, the Multicolor printing press, and the Drive Gear For Helicopters (Gun Type Inoculator).


Banker’s life story reads like a mythical odyssey, filled with gargantuan struggles, impossible dreams, a dogged determination to tackle challenges, and countless moments of epiphany, those Eureka moments which punctuate the path of all great inventors. Banker was born in a hillside cave in Turkey. It was the late 1890s, when the Ottoman Turks had begun exterminating the Armenian population of Turkey, through waves of massacres that would culminate in the Genocide of 1915.

Although Banker’s family survived the carnage, he was a sickly infant and was not expected to live, since his mother was unable to lactate as a result of the extraordinary traumas she had experienced. What ultimately saved the child from certain death was the resourcefulness of his father. An “improviser,” as Oscar Banks remembers him, his father made a feeding bottle using a goat’s udder and fed the child abundant amounts of grape juice, nursing him back to health. Such creativity in the face of a difficult situation would serve Oscar Banker as an abiding inspiration throughout his life.

Still a teenager, Asadour struck out on his own and headed to America, in search of a better life. Within a short span of time after he entered the United States through Ellis Island, the adventurous immigrant improved his English, changed his name to Oscar Banker, took up drafting, and found employment at a machine shop. He refused to go into a less-ambitious trade such as shoemaking, as an acquaintance had strongly suggested. Instead, Banker pursued his dream of becoming an engineer.

Already at the time he was working at the machine shop, Banker invented a saw-filing machine, to the astonishment of his appreciative employers. That early milestone would pave the way for an almost unbroken string of inventions. Banker invented the first practical automatic car transmission, which General Motors adopted for the 1940 Oldsmobile Hydramatic, “with twists of their own.” But since GM’s version of the transmission had serious design flaws, making it dangerous for drivers, Banker fought the car-manufacturing industry to force it to adapt a better, safer, design. After eight years of battling fellow automotive engineers and car companies alike, Banker won, with the result that manufacturers converted what Banker termed as “bobby-trap” automatic transmissions to ones with a “standardized” shift pattern. Thus, in later decades, Banker came to be known as “the man who made [consumer advocate] Ralph Nader.”

Banker’s second major invention were the primary controls of the first Sikorsky helicopter. The invention led to the mass manufacture of helicopters during World War II. Thanks to Banker’s designs, U.S.-made helicopters saved the lives of an estimated 20,000 servicemen fighting in the Pacific. Banker practically donated his invention to the United States. Although a contract stipulated that he would receive a nominal annual royalty for his invention, he was never actually paid royalties since the company with which he was associated with was sold and his contract was subsequently voided.

Still, Banker was not a man easily broken by setbacks. Rather, he went on to gift to the world a long series of groundbreaking inventions, including the first versatile needleless inoculation gun and the first four-color flatbed printing press. Banker has more than 300 patents to his name.

In his autobiography, titled Dreams and Wars of an American Inventor: An Immigrant’s Romance (co-written by Robert Hull; Rob Hull Books and Features, 1982), Banker writes: “America is yet the greatest county existing for opportunity… for achievement… if a person can endure the hardships, ridicule, rebuffs, whatever… and keep on going! That is what counts. And absolutely nothing else.”

Oscar H. Banker - Asadour Sarafian