First-Hand:An Engineer's World Travels
Submitted by Leo Berberich
In 1918, at twelve I watched with excitement as the workmen unloaded and installed the DELCO generator set at the family farm. I didn't know much about electricity, but I knew our family would have running water in the house and even a flush toilet. I was sure I would not miss trips to the privy.
The gasoline powered 32 volt generator and its set of 16 batteries would save me from studying by the light of a kerosene lamp. I was excited about the installation of the electric system. I could not resist watching the workmen string every foot of the wiring in all the farm buildings-even the chicken house. I wanted to know a lot more about this mysterious electricity. I wanted to learn how to manipulate it.
I was born on November 19, 1906, the son of German immigrant parents, on a small farm north of Petersburg, Virginia. I graduated from Saint Joseph's High School in Petersburg in1924. In the fall of that same year, I entered the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
My first real challenge was defending my decision to attend college. THE concept of college was not warmly received by my father, Moritz, who expected me, as his eldest son, to continue on with the family farm. My father had already come to rely on me to do important farm chores such as plowing the fields, cultivating and harvesting the crops, making hay and milking the cows. However, my favorite chores involved anything which required me to drive the family's 1917 Model T Ford. Hauling the farm's milk to the local dairy or taking my sisters and brother to school in the Ford (acquired at the cost of three hundred and sixty-five dollars) pleased me enormously.
In 1931, the Great Depression was rapidly deepening. The news was that Ph.D.s were accepting farm jobs and I, growing up on a farm, knew all about farm jobs. I did have the dubious distinction of being offered a position by a General Electric Company interviewer at their Pittsfield, Massachusetts, High Voltage Laboratory. However, I was telegraphically fired within three days due to the rapidly worsening business conditions.
Fortunately, Dean Whitehead came to my rescue and saved me from the pitchfork and the manure spreader by offering a research assistant's position at Johns Hopkins University. I was to work on the Dean's major project, the study of the life of high voltage oilimpregnated paper insulated cables. Considering the times, my salary of one hundred twenty-fived dollars per month was almost princely for a poor recent graduate. And it "kept the wolf from the door" until something better appeared on the horizon.
After about four months, something better did arise in the form of a letter from the Director of the Mobil Oil Research and Development Laboratories in New Jersey. Mobil requested that Dean Whitehead recommend one of his recent graduates for a new position they had created. Already the leading supplier of transformer oil for the electrical industry, Mobil wanted to expand its insulating oil business by developing the special oils required to produce high voltage lead-covered oil-impregnated paper cables and oil-impregnated paper power capacitors. I "just happened to be available" and gratefully accepted the position at two hundred and forty dollars per month. With one assistant, I proceeded to set up the laboratory to carry out this project.
So that I might better understand the language used by the some eight hundred chemists and chemical engineers in the laboratory, I decided to take a night school course in organic chemistry. The background gained from the course helped enormously, as did the extensive literature of the American Chemical Society.
My stay at the Mobil Research and Development Labs lasted about six years. During that time, I set up and organized the laboratory facilities for my project and developed several promising petroleum oil candidates for high voltage cables and power capacitors. Pilot quantities of these oils were tested by both General Electric and Westinghouse. However, they did not make a contribution to Mobil's bottom line because the Monsanto Chemical Company had just announced the polychlorobiphenyl synthetic liquids known as "PCB." PCBs soon replaced all petroleum products in power capacitors and even partially replaced petroleum in some transformers. These liquids were used extensively until, as we all now know, they were found to be carcinogenic and environmentally dangerous.
My work at Mobil had attracted attention along with: publication of several technical papers; my activities in technical societies; the publication of my doctoral dissertation, and my association with Dean Whitehead at Johns Hopkins, resulted in a budding reputation in the field of insulating oils. As a result, I received an unsolicited offer to join the Westinghouse Research and Development Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was to head up a new group that would concentrate on the development of coil insulation for large power electric generators.
I was especially interested in this proposition because the work in Pittsburgh would offer not only the opportunity to work with insulating liquids, but also insulating solids and gases. In 1937, I accepted this offer and moved to Pittsburgh. For the next twelve years, I remained in the Westinghouse labs. My responsibilities expanded to include work on insulation for other product lines and won me a promotion to the Manager of the Physical Chemical Section of the Insulation Department. I also served as consultant to the Westinghouse insulation user divisions and was often called to diagnose insulation problems in utility power plants.
In 1949, I made what was perhaps my most significant career decision. I was asked to leave the lab and venture into management to head what was then called the Liaison Engineering Department. This organization was a part of Central Engineering, reporting to the Corporate Engineering Vice President. The department consisted of a group of highly trained specialists in various technical fields, including insulating materials, metallurgy, electronics, chemistry, ceramics. The department's main function was to assist the some sixty-eight operating divisions at Westinghouse in solving problems and keeping them informed of new developments at the Pittsburgh labs and throughout the company. My staff and I would have to travel to operating divisions located all over the U.S. and to the Canadian Westinghouse subsidiary located in Hamilton, Ontario.
With misgivings about leaving the lab, I accepted the position, but only on the condition that I could still act as a consultant in my chosen field of electrical insulation in addition to managing the operation. In a short time, our operation developed the reputation for knowing "who could do what both inside and outside the Westinghouse family."
Nine years later, in 1958, another opportunity arose. I was offered the position of Manager of Engineering in the Westinghouse Electrical International Company, headquartered in New York. The offer was based on my broad knowledge of the Westinghouse headquarters and operating divisions in U.S. and the Westinghouse product lines. My staff, twenty product specialists, and I were responsible for servicing some one hundred and sixty-five product licensees located in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The organization would supply engineering and manufacturing information to the licensees on all product lines covered by their respective license agreements. These product lines ran the gamut from nuclear power plants to refrigerators and light bulbs.
We also received requests for information from the licensees world-wide, obtained the information from the appropriate operating divisions in the U.S. and transmitted it back to the requester. In return for this privileged information, the licensees' agreements with Westinghouse required them to pay to Westinghouse a negotiated royalty fee ranging from one-half percent to five percent of the selling price, depending on the novelty and sophistication of the product line. I was also responsible for the ten resident licensee representatives whose sole function was to expedite the flow of information from Westinghouse to their respective companies. Since the expense of generating and servicing the licensees was nominal, a high percentage of the royalty income went right to bottom line.
I enjoyed this position since it enabled me to travel to almost all of the free world to consult with licensees on problems or complaints, to encourage them to expand their product lines, and occasionally to obtain information of interest to Westinghouse. Information developed by the licensees, on the product lines covered in these agreements, was passed back to Westinghouse on a royalty-free basis. The most interesting of these trips was a trip to Japan where I toured about ten Mitsubishi plants located from Tokyo to Nagasaki. At each of these plants, I was cordially entertained by the General Manager. I was impressed with their capabilities in converting Westinghouse information into reliable products for their markets. I also admired their industriousness, their company loyalty, their food, and their culture. I am not surprised that Japanese products have achieved worldwide recognition for quality and reliability.
In 1961, after only three years in the position, I was offered another international relations position by the President of Westinghouse International. I was told that management wanted to create a new position based at the Westinghouse European Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. And I was judged the best qualified person to head this activity. The title was Director, Associated Companies Activities-Europe. The main objective of this position was to provide special service to some sixty-five licensees located in Europe. I would be responsible for an area from Oslo, Norway to Rome, Italy. In addition, two Westinghouse resident engineers at Siemens Companies headquarters in Erlangen and Munich, Germany as well as several young design and manufacturing engineers on training assignments would report to the activity. The assignment was to last four years.
I declined this offer, even though the challenge of the position, the concept of living in Geneva and the European travel sounded intriguing. In balance, the new position did not appear equal to what I already had in heading the Pittsburgh International Operations. However, three weeks after the first meeting on this subject, I was called back to the President's office and persuaded to accept this assignment. In August, 1961, my wife, Ida Mae, and our seventeen year old son and I sailed for Europe. In Geneva, progress in developing the activity moved ahead rapidly, since I was familiar with the European licensees, having visited most of them because of my former job. The licensees in Europe truly seemed to appreciate the extra attention and service they received. I even had the pleasure of assisting and seeing my most important research and development project, the thermalastic power generator insulation, go into production in licensee plants in Oslo, Norway and in Madrid, Spain. My wife and I were also asked to represent Westinghouse at ceremonial programs, such as a ship launching by a steam turbine licensee in Holland. My youngest son was privileged to spend his senior year in high school at the Ecole International de Geneve, where the courses were taught in both French and English.
As an aside, it might be added that since the official language in Geneva is French, Westinghouse financed an intensive six week Berlitz course in French for us before we left New York. Although this was not sufficient to become fluent in the language, it was adequate to negotiate an apartment lease, shop, dine out and travel. Fortunately, most of the Genevois could understand and speak some English. More importantly, it was a requirement in the Westinghouse Geneva office for all secretaries to be capable of taking dictation and typing all correspondence and reports in English. All the licensees were already accustomed to receiving correspondence and information in English.
After less than three years in Geneva, I received discouraging news in the form of a letter from the same president of Westinghouse International Company who had strongly urged me to accept the assignment. The letter stated that, due to recent sharp decreases in Westinghouse earnings, management had reluctantly decided to eliminate this activity. This cutback would be part of the International Company's response to a corporate directive to reduce expenses.
I was assured that this was no reflection on my performance and unlike some others, I was assured of a position somewhere in Westinghouse. However, its location was not yet determined since the cutback was an overall corporate problem. After some preliminary investigations into opportunities based on my own knowledge of the company, my wife and I returned to New York during the summer of 1964, more than one year ahead of schedule. Once back in the U. S., I spent several weeks investigating position possibilities. I concluded that the best opportunity for relocating was to the Defense and Electronic Systems Center near Baltimore. Baltimore management agreed that I should be able, based on my European and Japanese experience in particular, to assist in increasing the small amount of defense business Westinghouse had with our European and Japanese allies. Thus, in the fall of 1964, a new position, Manager,International Programs, Aerospace Division, was created for me at the Baltimore Center.
I started out in the engineering department largely to become familiar with the product line. I later transferred to the marketing department, since my contributions to the international marketing aspects were potentially more important than the consulting aspects. I soon discovered that our allies' major interests, particularly the British and Japanese, were airborne radar and airborne counter-measures systems.
Since I was now back in the domestic part of the company, I worked with my former International Company colleagues first to obtain U.S. Air Force clearance to talk to our allies; then to arrange the necessary presentations to the interested foreign allies; and finally, after an order was negotiated, to obtain State Department clearance to export the products. In this activity, I became a frequent visitor to the U.S. Air Force at the Pentagon, to the State Department and to the appropriate foreign embassies in the Washington, DC. area.
The British Royal Air Force (RAF) was first to place an order. The RAF wanted several hundred Westinghouse radar systems for their American made F-4 Phantom aircraft. They planned to produce some of these systems in the United Kingdom (UK) after they obtained the necessary production license from Westinghouse and clearance from the State Department. Ferranti, Ltd., located in Edinborough, Scotland, was chosen to manufacture the system in the UK under Westinghouse license. I successfully facilitated Ferranti's production startup on this system. Some time later, the Japanese Air Force placed another significant order for the same F-4 Radar System.
Several allies displayed considerable interest in a counter-measure system developed for the U.S. Air Force by Westinghouse, but no orders were actually written until after I retired. During those six years plus before retiring, the proportion of international business increased from about five percent to more than thirty percent of the Aerospace Division's total business. I cannot take all the credit for this increase, there was tremendous cooperative team spirit exhibited among my colleagues at Baltimore and in the International Company. I do feel, however, that the international expertise I brought to Baltimore significantly benefited both my colleagues and Westinghouse. Looking back, I feel that at age fortythree, without an extensive management background or, better still, an MBA, I probably should have stayed in reasearch and development. My career never did advance beyond middle management.
While the liaison and international positions offered some very attractive and interesting compensations, none were as intellectually stimulating as research and development. I enjoyed the work that resulted in new patents for Westinghouse and the publication of papers the most. If I had remained in the lab, I would undoubtedly have achieved a more impressive international reputation in my field and collected more significant awards.
Self-satisfaction just wasn't present in the latter part my career. However, I have few regrets about the path taken. I tremendously enjoyed the world-wide travel, visiting sights that most people never have the opportunity to see. I feel that the high point was the years I spent in research and development The low point was the months after finding my operation in Geneva was being shut down. I recognized too late in life that large corporations like Westinghouse are not run by the Ph.D's but by the MBA's.