I was ten and a half years old when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar dust and into the history books. Wow, I thought, looking up that evening at the moon, half illuminated by the setting sun, how amazing is that? My childhood thoughts of “The Man in the Moon” were changed forever.
At my dad’s work back on earth, they manufactured wood panel products with routed or grooved patterns on the panel surface. They had an automated machine that held the panel upright while a vertical and horizontally moving, 2-axis router would carve a design based on data from a punched tape and tape reader (yes, a punched tape; remember this was the 50’s and 60’s). On one occasion, they were having trouble getting the plunge axis to work. This axis would thrust or retract the router blade into or away from the panel. If the router did not plunge or retract correctly, it would carve where it shouldn’t or it would miss carving where it should. If this happened, they would have to scrap the panel at some expense. They invited me, the managers 10-year-old son, to assist the machine by making sure that when it was supposed to plunge, that it did, and that when it was supposed to retract, that it did. I stood in sawdust close to the machine and watched a light on the computer or tape reader and if the router did not retract, I would grab a bar and pull it out and vice versa. The workers labeled me, ‘The Automated In and Out.’ Even though faulty, I thought that machine was amazing.
After routing some of their products, they covered them with thin wood-grain vinyl by coating the wood surface with adhesive, then vacuum-applying the plastic to the panels or other furniture (In the 30’s and 40’s, wood-grain vinyl was also used on cars called Woodies). In some cases this plastic became a hinge for folding mitered panels into a box shape. How ingenious; how clever. Searching the internet, I found an old newspaper article on the company.
I enjoyed math, wood & metal shop, photography, guitar, hiking, skiing, and backpacking. I even used my mom’s sewing machine to make my own backpack from a kit. The backpack was nice, but I was more fascinated with the gears and shafts inside the sewing machine (when my mom wasn’t looking). In shop I made a model sailboat, a footstool, a gavel, a book shelf and a cedar chest. I enjoyed the creative artistic aspects of photo composition as well as chemical development of film and paper. I had a darkroom and equipment for developing black and white film and paper. I took my camera hiking, skiing, and to most activities.
Before the days of portable stereo’s, I built a wooden box and mounted an old 8-Track car stereo inside, with power supply and speakers and took it on outings with friends (No vinyl on this one). I enjoyed basic electrical wiring.
During high school, I took drafting every year. I enjoyed it; my mechanical pencil was cool. I enjoyed drawing mechanical objects and architectural structures and renderings. I thought I was pretty good at it and for a time wanted to become an architect. Working for my father over the years gave me lots of exposure to drawings, cabinetry, and construction sites; however, as I worked on wood products, I seemed more interested in the machines than in the items being built by them.
At the university I toured campus, talked to professors, and took aptitude tests. I narrowed it down to Communications and Engineering. No one in my immediate family was an engineer but it was drawing me in. Engineering seemed more practical and interesting because I wanted to design mechanisms and machines. I declared my major as Mechanical Engineering. I loved statics, dynamics, and kinematics. I would come home from numerical methods class and program the days learning into my Atari 800 (a personal computer with a whopping 16 kilobytes of RAM memory, no flash memory and no disc drive. I used a magnetic cassette tape to store my programs) I was proud of my accomplishments.
After a little research (before Google and even the internet) I figured out how to reprogram my computers’ joy-stick port for ‘output’ and used it to control a little electric motor I took from an old printer.
During college I continue to work for my dad. He allowed me (with little or no budget) to build a few simple gadgets and machines to help production. While cutting or assembling a thousand drawers for hotel room dressers and night stands, my mind was always on efficiency, “How can this job be done faster and more accurate?” I even explored books on Operations Research and the classical “Cutting Stock” problem so I could write software to help decide how to get the most out of a sheet of plywood.
Yes, I was drafted, no, drawn to engineering and my mind was always solving problems. I enjoyed the challenge and I couldn’t wait to graduate and go to work as a real engineer.