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Extraordinary Inventor Royal Riblet

Traction Wheel Model, 1915. Museum Collection 3734.3

Royal Newton Riblet (1871-1960) - bicycle-racing champion, inventor and entrepreneur - personified the American spirit of invention. He applied for more than 20 patents - many of them tramways to lift skiers up the slopes or to carry mine ore out of the earth. Even his family participated, ferrying by tram to Eagle’s Nest, their fully electrified home high on a cliff above the Spokane River - now a National Historic Landmark.

Riblet’s square wheel, likely patented in 1915, formed flat surfaces for better contact, weight distribution and traction. The innovative design was effective, but had 100 moving parts and cost 40% more than a traditional wheel and tire - too expensive for mainstream production. In a last-ditch effort, Riblet approached the Army – but just as World War II ended and potential demand disappeared. The idea never sold.

By the 1950s Spokane’s downtown parking problems inspired Riblet to design an all-mechanical system, using lifts instead of ramps. His “pigeon hole parking system” went into operation locally and influenced parking garage design as far away as New York City.

Riblet had parted ways with his brother Byron in the 1930s. Byron’s tramway company continued to grow with the downhill ski industry and still produces chairlifts today. Meanwhile, whether inventing early automobile improvements - thermoelectric indicators and directional signals – or improving irrigation sprinkler efficiency, Royal Riblet never stopped tinkering.

Find regional innovations like Riblet’s models, drafting table and instruments, golf hole markers and outdoor checker game markers in the Museum Collection.

The Inland Northwest History Moment is a collaboration of Spokane Public Radio and the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (MAC), in celebration of 100 Stories, the museum’s centennial exhibition.

Pigeon Hole Parking System Model, c. 1953. Museum Collection 3734.1
Pigeon Hole Parking System Model, c. 1953. Museum Collection 3734.1

More Resources:
Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture: Archives Collection Ms 134 Riblet Papers

Episode originally published on June 23, 2014.