The child of immigrant parents and a broken home, Lear said that at the age of 12 he had worked out a blueprint of his life, based upon profiting by inventing what people wanted. He held some 150 patents at his death.
After completing eighth grade, Lear quit school to become a mechanic and at the age of 16 joined the navy, lying about his age. During World War I, Lear studied radio and after his discharge designed the first practicable auto radio. Failing to secure the financial backing to produce the radio himself, Lear sold the radio to the Motorola Company in 1924.