Charles Francis Avila
Charles Francis Avila was born in Taunton, Massachusetts, 17 September 1906. His facility for resolving seemingly insoluble problems and his vigorous leadership contributed much to the electrical power industry. There was much in the tradition of Thomas A. Edison in the way he worked, for Avila had the same far-reaching curiosity, the same unflagging interest in basic principles and the same unremitting perseverance. His early penchant for an engineering career became evident during his pre-high school days through his interest in the care, rebuilding, and refinishing of bicycles. He was recognized as a leader by and was a consultant to his boyhood friends in the numerous areas of model building and mechanical and electrical gadgetry.
He was blind in one eye, apparently from birth. his parents were quite poor and could not afford much extra. at around age 4 he complained to his mother that his nose was in the way and he couldn’t see out of one eye; in other words he was developing engineering skills at a very early age.
In high school be was most interested in the science courses and became an enthusiastic builder of amateur radio equipment. His limited budget made him constantly aware of the economic aspects of his projects. This combination of technological interest and economics led him to enter an integrated five- year program in Electrical Engineering and Business Administration at Harvard University, from which he was graduated in 1929 with the Bachelors Degree.
He built one of the early cat whisker radios when he was about age 8. An uncle who was an attorney told him if he received report cards similar to the ones he had been receiving, the uncle would pay for his way to college. That is the only way Charlie could have ever gone to college. Consequently Charlie realized how important an education is and set up a fairly large scholarship at Harvard university. His favorite quotation was “if you educate a boy, you educate a man – if you educate a girl, you educate a family”.
Career and Cable Design Improvements
Immediately after graduation he entered the employ of the Boston Edison Company. During these years he took the initiative in analyzing and solving the many problems inherent in the operation of the utility system. His contributions included a method of laying a half-mile length of cable across a lake without a barge to carry the reel; the development of a formula for safe pulling tensions to permit extra long cables between manholes; the design of a metal bellows as a flexible insert in sheaths to allow cable motion; the invention of a thermometer probe to measure accurately the temperature of cable conductors in ducts; the improvement of cable reliability by investigating the complex causes of faults under varying conditions. From this work he derived formulas whereby the combined cost of testing and the cost of outages were made a minimum.
Avila designed tanks for transformers applying a zinc spray of bituminous coating to prevent their deterioration when salt water was present. He devised slots in unfastened manhole covers to prevent them from flying up. He was a pioneer in the use of neoprene-jacketed cables to eliminate stray currents and corrosion by electrolysis. He engineered the installation of the first high voltage aluminum conductor cable in this country. As Vice President and a member of the Executive Committee of the Yankee Atomic Electric Company and as a Director of the Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Company, he did much to develop atomic power in New England.
Another solution to manhole cover problems was the fact that they rattled when a vehicle was driven over them. He has a patent for machining the cover to fit tightly into the holding ring. He joked he never even received the complementary dollar for the design.
Avila's method of dealing with cable failures led to his becoming a leading authority on cable design and operation. When a failure occurred, he was soon at the scene tracing the cause and minutely dissecting the faulty section to determine the source of failure. From these analyses, with the assistance of the engineers of cable companies, notable improvements in cable manufacture were developed.
Avila advanced through a series of positions with the Edison Company until in 1960 he became President and General Manager and, in 1967, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer.
Interest in Optics
Avila's interests were not confined to electrical engineering. While at Harvard he read Ritchey's treatise on optics and telescopes and before long began grinding and mounting optical lenses which in turn led to the construction of a 6-inch telescope of excellent precision in definition and mounting. His enthusiasm influenced others and resulted in the formation of the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston, a club which continues today. This club, with the assistance of Avila's expertise in optics and with the collaboration of James G. Baker of the Harvard Optical Research Laboratory and Harlow Shapley, worked on the design of an aerial camera for the National Defense Research Committee. Avila did the entire engineering work on the camera with automatic focusing for altitudes up to flying limits and self- adjustments for ground speed and distance, air density, temperature and plane rocking. This camera was used extensively in the Pacific and Korean wars and is in use today for tracking missiles and satellites.
This camera was alleged by Avila to have been used in the preliminary photo reconnaissance in discovering the source of the v2 bombs being shot by Germany into England during World War II and prior to dropping of the first atomic bombs. There is some credence to this as a camera was located at the air force museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio with a detailed description of its use. The early cameras were mounted in unarmed P-38’s.
Service, Awards and Personal Life
He was interested in public affairs and contributed generously of his time. He played a large part in the conception and shaping of the New Boston and was a director of many civic and business organizations including the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the John Hancock and Liberty Mutual Insurance Companies, the National Shawmut Bank of Boston, the Raytheon Company, and the New England Council.
He also made considerable contributions to the field of education. As a member of the Executive Committee of the Society of Harvard Engineers and Scientists, he maintained close contact with the educational program of his Alma Mater; he was a member of the EET Committee on Relations with Educational Institutions. As a member of the Corporation and a Trustee of Northeastern University, he was instrumental in establishing the Power System Engineering Program, a five-year course sponsored by local utilities, designed to stimulate the interests of electrical engineering students in power engineering.
Avila was a Fellow of the IEEE. He was President of the Edison Electric Institute and a member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies. He served on numerous committees of the IEEE and of the EEI. He received the honorary LL.D. degree from the University of Massachusetts in 1963. He received the 1968 IEEE Edison Medal for "For his early contribution to underground transmission, for his continuing guidance in the field of electrical research and for his positive leadership in the development of the electrical utility industry."
Avila married Elizabeth McLean in 1934 and, over the course of their long marriage, traveled to over 60 countries with her. They had a son, Donald F., and a daughter, Carolyn L. (Avila) George. Avila’s hobbies included building boats, sailing and racing; telescope building; skeet and trap shooting; travel and photography; and a well-equipped wood and metal workshop. He was an expert snow skier, tennis player and ice speed skater. He and his wife Betty had been on every continent except Antarctica, and they had about 35,000 colored slides taken on their trips.
Avila died on 29 October 2000. The last two items he built before he passed on was a very complex grandfather’s clock built using mathematical curves on some of the woodwork as developed by John Quincy Adams, and a complex hickory chest-on-chest. Both of these were done with failing eyesight in the ‘good’ eye.