Tulsan invented changeable signs
BY TIM STANLEY World Staff Writer
Sunday, January 13, 2013
1/13/13 at 3:03 AM
While working at his job in the city of Tulsa's Legal Department one day, Don Downing saw a sign.
Like a lot of his ideas, it just kind of came to him - popped up in his head.
And as usual, he knew he had to act on it.
What Downing, an investigator for the legal staff, envisioned was a traffic sign - not just any kind, but a more effective sign that could be programmed to change messages.
Having inherited his father's inventive spirit, the lifelong Tulsan set about fashioning one.
Downing's mechanical signs caught on, initially for posting speed limits in school zones.
He went on to patent a variety of them for all sorts of traffic needs. That was in the 1960s.
Downing's company is still in business. Now run by his sons, and having expanded to other products, it continues to reflect Downing's best qualities, family members say.
"He had an inquisitive mind," said his wife, Deanie Downing.
"Don wanted to know why things did what they did. If he got stuck, he stayed with it until he figured it out. And he always did."
Donald Marvin Downing, a World War II veteran, inventor and founder of Downing Manufacturing, died Wednesday. He was 87.
A service is set for 2 p.m. Monday at the Memorial Park Cemetery Chapel under the direction of Mark Griffith-Westwood Funeral Home.
Downing's first order was for 10 school-zone signs for the city of Tulsa.
From there, his business, housed in a small west Tulsa building, grew.
Soon nearly every school in the Tulsa area had at least one of his signs.
Achieved through a mechanical system of doors that opened and closed with an internal clock, Downing's signs could be set to change messages at intervals.
Using the same system, he also made no-left-turn signs, railroad-crossing signs, signs with messages for tractor-trailer rigs and signs alerting drivers to high-water dangers.
3M, a national company, later began selling his signs.
Eventually, Downing's signs were advising drivers in nearly every state and 19 other countries about traffic issues.
Technology advanced, and Downing's design is no longer used, although many of his well-made signs are still operating in Tulsa and elsewhere.
But he continued to invent and patent other products.
One of the company's chief products now is an applicator he developed that road crews use to attach reflectors to the pavement.
One of eight children, Downing was a graduate of Webster High School. He served three years in the Marine Corps during WWII.
Based in the Pacific, he spent time on various islands and, at one point, suffered a shrapnel wound to his knee.
"The doctor (who performed the surgery) told him that he would always walk with a limp," his wife said. "But Don was the kind of man who was going to prove the doctor wrong. And he did."
Later, Downing studied law and was an investigator for several Tulsa law firms before joining the city of Tulsa's legal staff.
Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Deanie Downing; three children, Danny Downing, Denis Downing and Dana Downing; two siblings; and 10 grandchildren.
Tim Stanley 918-581-8385
Don Downing shows some of the mechanically changeable traffic signs he designed and manufactured at his business, Downing Manufacturing, in Tulsa. Downing, 87, died Wednesday. A service is set for Monday. Tulsa World file