The Human Condition:

Son of a Mechanical Engineer – March 31, 2013

My father was a mechanical engineer. He was born in 1912, at the beginning of the internal combustion engine’s remaking of America but when blacksmithing was still a recognized profession. By the time he went to the university to study engineering, in the early 1930s, the curriculum was a curious mixture of old and new. In one course, he was part of a team with the hands-on assignment of improving the performance of, or “souping up,” a V8 engine. In another class, he had to learn ironwork and as a final exam forged a chain of iron links, which he said taught him more about the ductility of metals than any amount of theory. He didn’t know at the time that a universe of technological wonders still lay ahead of him—or maybe he did. In the course of a long professional life, he worked with radar systems, nuclear fuel technology, and digital computers. I am proud to be the son of this man.

Growing up as a boy in the 1920s, my father was passionate about aircraft and flying. He idolized the barnstormers of the era, collecting pictures and articles about them in a scrapbook. He made drawings of their aircraft and even wrote poetry on the subject.1 His dream at the time was to become a pilot—until he reasoned that, once the novelty wore off, airline pilots would simply be “bus drivers in the sky.” Then he decided to become an engineer instead.

Late in the 1920s, in rebellion against an overbearing father,2 he ran away from home. He hitchhiked from New York’s Hudson Valley out to California and worked a whole summer on a ranch. I never knew how he got back, but I assume it was the same way, by thumb. He was an independent spirit and didn’t care much what other people thought or said. I don’t think was afraid of anything, ever.3

My father taught me to be curious about how things worked. He fixed my lifelong obsession with machinery, in particular things with blinking lights, screens, and keyboards, by creating my first toy when I was three years old. It was a box whose front was covered with toggle switches and colored lights. When I threw the switches in certain combinations, the lights came on in certain patterns. These patterns didn’t mean anything in particular, but they fascinated this toddler. They also taught me, almost subliminally, that certain things work in certain ways—if you can only figure them out. Wasn’t that an example of pedagogical genius?

After graduating from the university, my father worked at Bell Labs during World War II, developing wave guides for the new detection technology, radar. Right after the war, he and four friends from the lab formed a group they called “McWellworth”—for McCoy, Williams, Elliott, Worley, and Thomas—and built the first portable tape recorder. It was based on recording technology captured from the Germans, who used iron oxide–coated paper tape to record the magnetic impulses from microphones. But where the German machines were the size of a desk, the McWellworth machine was the size of a suitcase—a big suitcase, to be sure, weighing about 25 pounds, and for just the recorder, because amplifier, speakers, and other parts of the system came extra—but it was portable nonetheless. The machine used the motors from aircraft hydraulic pumps, vastly geared down, to spin the tape reels. So when you put the machine into reverse or fast-forward, it ran at about 3,000 rpm!

My father was always interested in electronics, and I knew the Radio Shack store in Boston before it grew into a national chain. Ours was the first family in our neighborhood to have a home stereo system. My brother caught the electrical bug, as well as the photography bug. He built many home electronics kits and understood all about electrical circuits—much better than I ever did. My father installed that McWellworth tape recorder in our home stereo, although the recording and playback were still monophonic. That setup became my second technological toy. Listening to tapes taken from radio broadcasts and later from friends’ long-playing records, I learned to love the music of Guy Lombardo and my first Broadway play, My Fair Lady.

During the early 1950s, my father worked at Sylvania on Long Island to develop one of the first plants for processing nuclear fuel. The story in the family was that when the factory was ready to start up, my father ordered the other workers outside and went inside himself to throw the switches that initiated the automated equipment. That way, if there was an accident, he would be the only one hurt. It’s no wonder I came to think of my father as some kind of hero.

Also at Sylvania he worked on a project called “MobiDiC” —for Mobile Digital Computer. This was a contract with the U.S. Army to create a “portable” computer to solve problems in fire control plotting among artillery batteries in the field, at a time when digital computers filled entire basements with vacuum tubes. The new computer consisted of four truck trailers—one each for CPU, input-output, memory units, and power supply—that were backed into a cross configuration to make a single system. I find it ironic that, toward the end of his life, my father ran a small business, making draperies for large hotel and office complexes, and kept the books with a computer that fit neatly on a desktop.

He taught me how to tighten the lug nuts on a car, or any series of screws or bolts, like those holding up a set of door hinges or holding down a table top. First, tighten each pair of nuts on opposite sides—like those at the twelve o’clock and six o’clock positions, then at two and eight, then four and ten—and take each one down to just finger tight. Second, repeat the order of tightening to snug all the nuts up with a wrench. Finally, tighten to specification in that same order. This way, the wheel or bolted piece sits straight and firm.

He taught me how to cut a board, a tree limb, or a piece of pipe by making a small nick with the saw blade at the measured place, then improving it with longer and longer strokes, and to saw right through to the end, supporting the sawed-off piece with a brace or with your hand. This way, the sawed end doesn’t sag away and take with it a splinter of uncut material.

He taught me to think things through and to see the consequences of what I was doing. And, also, to see what others were doing and the consequences of their actions as well. This is not only the beginning of understanding your world but also of foreseeing and predicting the future—not to mention being a good groundwork for strategic thinking.

He taught me about efficiency: that the simplest and least involved way to do a thing, consuming the least energy and with the fewest moving parts, was also the most reliable and elegant way to do it. If engineering can be considered an art, this is its underlying principle.

My father was a sketch artist who drew accurately, if not with great feeling, portraits and at least one nude. His chalk drawings of two young boys—one flaxen-haired, one dark, and both drawn years before my brother and I were born—were eerily prophetic of the children he would have. His drawings, however, tended to have a sleepy, almost “empty” feeling, like looking at images of ghosts. He was an engineer first and an artist as distant second.

He tried to teach me mathematics, but I had a head like a rock. My mind works in words and pictures, and the relationships connecting them, while numbers have no particular flavor for me.4 I think he wanted at least one of his sons to follow in his footsteps as an engineer, but he was ultimately disappointed. At the end, though, I think he was proud that I became a writer, because he also liked to read. Still, I think some of his influence did come through in my writing, because I tend to concern myself with story structure and mechanics as much—perhaps even more so—than with the feelings and emotions of the characters.

As I was growing up, he filled our house with good books and magazines, and with music. He subscribed to the sort of publishing house reading programs, and record company listening programs, that were popular in the 1950s and ’60s. Under a subscription, the company would keep sending you so many books or classical records each month for as long as you paid the bills. I used to think the books and records were just for his use, although he didn’t mind if my brother and I became attached to them. I realize now they were meant mostly for us. By simply walking around the house, keeping my eyes open, and occasionally picking up and reading an article or a book, or playing a record, I acquired a big part of my artistic education. It also set a lifelong bent toward self-education and a love of literature and music.

My father hated waste and senseless destruction, and he would go out of his way to preserve a thing of beauty for its own sake. On a boating trip to Canada, my family was out walking on a promenade along a shoreline protected with armor rock. A beautiful mahogany speedboat, totally unattended, had just broken away from the dock at a marina out on the point and was drifting onto this rocky shore. My father climbed down over the rocks, waded into the water, and held off the boat until someone could get in touch with the marina to send a launch to retrieve it. He broke a finger wrestling with that errant speedboat. This also taught me something about civic duty.

He always had a project going. During his life he bought several boats—small cabin cruisers, small and large sailboats, and a speedboat—in part because he loved the water but also because he loved to improve things. Over the years he designed and built a flotation device for the open-cockpit sailboat and various swim ladders for the cabin cruisers, and he always repaired and worked on the engines himself. When he wasn’t working on a boat or tuning up one of the family cars, he had a project going in the house: building a laundry chute from the upper floors, repairing a lamp, recessing a refrigerator into the wall of a crowded kitchen. Late in life he was still tinkering: building model gliders and steamboats, and trying his hand at stained glass work. He even took up sailplaning and started a course of piloting lessons—finally realizing that childhood dream—until his eyesight became problematic through retinal degeneration and he had to be grounded. He taught me you are never too old to try something new.

I never became an engineer, but my father’s influence meant that I could work comfortably with engineers and scientists as a technical writer and editor. I have a hunger for understanding things, and I’m not shy about asking questions, proposing hypotheses, and sticking my fingers where they don’t belong. I am the son of a mechanical engineer and damned proud of it.

1. Not very good poetry. I remember one verse about an airplane crash, which ended: “… take the crankshaft out of the small of my back, and build up the engine again.”

2. My grandfather was a civil engineer. He poured the concrete for the dome at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, according to family legend, helped work out the stress tables for prestressed concrete. He was also an inveterate hobbyist who explored beekeeping, pigeon racing, and winemaking—and that’s surely where my father picked up his lifelong involvement in hobbies, because his father always had him work on these projects—usually the hard and dirty labor. But where my grandfather had a heavy hand, my father had a much lighter touch—probably in reaction to his own boyhood.

3. One of our family’s extended boating trips took us up the Hudson River to Lake Champlain in a tiny, 26-foot cabin cruiser built on a Steelcraft launch. This was in the year 1954, when hurricane Carol swept up the East Coast. That storm was responsible for knocking down the steeple of Old North Church in Boston, but its effects were felt further away in the Hudson Valley. We were on the lake that day, in hurricane winds and waves twenty feet high. My father and mother fought the storm all the way down the lake and anchored in the lee of Fort Ticonderoga. I stayed awake through the whole experience—holding the cabin door closed against buffeting winds—and I believe I understood at some level, and at the age of six years old, how close to death we came that day. Thinking back on it, since then I’ve not been afraid of much, either. For that, I also credit my father’s influence.

4. To this day, I tend to misspeak my numbers. Perhaps that’s because my mind gets confused by the fact that most amounts can be phrased in different words but mean the same thing: $4,600 can be called “four thousand, six hundred dollars” or “forty-six hundred dollars.” If I think about it, I really do understand the amounts involved. But in casual talk I’m just as likely to call $46,000 “four thousand dollars” as “forty thousand.” Just no feeling for numbers at all, and even less for orders of magnitude. But I do admire math, even if I can’t operate it. I was terrible at music lessons and the mathematical relationships between notes and chords, too—although I love to listen to music and respond to a chord change as an emotional experience.