About Dimitry Grabbe
Dimitry Grabbe played an integral part in advancing U.S. space exploration. His pioneering work has produced nearly 500 U.S. and foreign patents covering machine design, semiconductor packaging, electronics assembly and optoelectronic connector design. His work in printed circuit board technology for electronic packaging led to the development of large, multi-layer printed circuit boards. This proved crucial in helping U.S. astronauts gain greater real-time control of their space-exploration activities. In 1964, Mr. Grabbe founded the Maine Research Corporation which specialized in high-end printed circuit boards; the company was dissolved in 1972. He joined AMP, Inc. in 1973, and helped it become a world leader in electrical/electronic connector technology, test socket technology and miniature semiconductor packages. Today, Mr. Grabbe is assisting Dr. Pryputniewicz, professor of mechanical engineering and founding director of the center for holographic studies and laser micro-mechaTronics (CHSLT) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass. with research on gyroscopes and accelorometers. An IEEE Life Fellow, Mr. Grabbe has also been recognized by AMP (now part of Tyco Electronics) with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and by the American Society of Mechnical Engineers, which chose him for its Leonardo da Vinci Award.
In this interview, Grabbe desribes his childhood and education in Yugoslavia, his early employment experiences in the U.S., the business and technologial achieements of the Maine Research Corporation, and contributions to the Apollo Program. Grabbe details the work environment at AMP, desribing his technical achievements and colleagues. Grabbe addresses the significance of the AIEE, IRE, and the IEEE, and he recounts some of his teaching experiences.
About the Interview
DIMITRY GRABBE: An Interview Conducted by Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center, 18 December 2007
Interview # 476 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Dimitry Grabbe, an oral history conducted in 2007 by Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.
Interview: Dimitry Grabbe
Interviewer: Robert Colburn
Date: 18 December 2007
Location: Middletown, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Childhood and education
For the transcriber, it is the 18th of December. We are conducting an interview with Dimitry Grabbe on the campus of Pennsylvania State University in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. If I could just begin with your childhood and early development and education?
I was born in Yugoslavia in Belgrade, and at the age of about one and a half, I was shipped over to Poland where my grandfather had a large estate. I lived there with my father’s sister, who was my godmother, taking care of what I can read or cannot read, and so on, filters. It was a large place. He had 350 cows, 150 horses. The grandfather didn’t like tractors, so everything was done the old- fashioned way. No electricity in the house because he didn’t like it; it’s a novelty, so they had about forty kerosene lamps they would light up then hang them in different places so you could see. Very conservative, with one exception that he was smoking and rolling his own cigarettes. He would get the tobacco from Yugoslavia, and then he would roll them. And it’s actually part of the proceeding when you talk to him; he rolls his cigarettes. I never acquired a taste for smoking, so I don’t. My parents didn’t smoke, grandfather really is the only one who smoked.
The schooling was at home. We had teachers come in and run regular classrooms. There were four of us: my brother and two sisters. And so all the material that was supposed to be digested in earlier years, that was the school I had at home. Probably more detail than I would have gotten in a school itself. We even had to learn to dance, but there were no girls allowed, so I had to dance with a chair, and that cured me of dancing. When I grew up, I never did, and I still don’t.
Military academy, bombing raids
Then by the time I was approaching ten years old, I had to go back to Yugoslavia to go to the military school, Kariatov [spelling?] which was a large establishment. There were about 650 students, which is large by European standards. King Alexander -- as a student – had gone to a military school in Russia, so he spoke the language fluently, and was very helpful to the immigrants from Russia, and he gave a large building Kazarma [spelling] to the corps of cadets, and tell them to build a circle on Rumanian border, so we had 650 cadets, and whenever you go someplace, there was marching. He never walked from place to place.
Eventually the war came. The bombing raid by the Americans was interesting. It was really some infiltrators of the Yugoslav government in England who orchestrated this because they were supporting companies (?) [unintelligible]. It really made no sense. We lived in a house across the street from the military academy, a bomb came through the sidewalk, burrowed underground, and broached the brick wall in the cellar. It didn’t go off, so most people ran out of there.
I was curious. The bomb had pushed out the brick wall, so just with taking a few bricks out of the wall you could see the face of the bomb. It was a round affair with four notches and I didn’t have wrenches of that size so I took a hammer and chisel, and tried to unscrew it. After a while I realized that it was a left-hand thread rather than a right-hand thread, so I tried it to the left. The bomb was about one meter long. I got the thing unscrewed, and it was very interesting. It was a detonating cartridge about two by six inches held with three spider legs of metal, and in back of that was a plastic bag with foaming liquid inside. It was acid eating on the wire which held the striker back. About four hours later, it went off, but by then I had it all apart. I’m dragging the bomb out; it was full of material which looked like soap. It was really TNT. It was cast into the bomb so it was not in pieces. So a couple of friends and I were digging, digging the stuff out and put up a fire and had the beautiful bluish green flame out of that stuff.
The bombing raid did target the military academy center, and across the road there was an electric street car, the rails, and then a very large ministry building. The bombing raid was very destructive. The reason for the bombing was purely political in the support of the Communist party because there was nothing of any meaningful military establishment in Belgrade. The King had been exported to England, and Tito had support of the West, supplied him with equipment. But there was a bunch of people who didn’t go along with that so we had military confrontation with the Tito people on the outskirts of Belgrade.
How old were you when you took the bomb apart?
Only about twelve. Taking it apart was frustrating because I was pounding that thing and it didn’t want to budge until I realized I was pounding it in the wrong direction. You don’t expect left hand threads, but we burned most of that stuff out and then let the thing lay outside in the yard, nothing happened to anything. A large number of bombs had these delay things, so the Italians -- who were prisoners of the Germans -- were digging up the bombs. I didn’t see any of them go off, but I understand that some did. TNT is the bad stuff. And it looks like yellowish soap, has no smell. I don’t know the taste, but it didn’t give any clue as to what it was.
Mechanical training, watch repair
Tell me something about your earlier training, the watch making influence and how that lead you into technical areas.
I was always tinkering with things mechanical. I had watches taken apart and then put back together. Eventually I wound up in Munich, I had to eat so I went to a jewelry shop, a store and I offered to do watch repairing for them. So the owner said, ‘okay take a watch apart;’ she wanted to look how I did it. I took it apart. She had a washing machine, and I washed the parts, put it back together again, oiled it, and then she started giving me work. I declared myself a watch maker.
In Munich in that house, there was a clock with a bunch of figures that are moving around and so on and somebody in a fighter plane shot it up so it was damaged substantially. And one of the things, there was a tooth missing in the large gear. So I made a substitute and put it in mechanically without bracing or anything like that. Those were pretty big gears and that worked fine. They put a little plate with engraving on the wall saying that this crazy Russian fixed the clock.
I went to [name inaudible] which was a university-like establishment, but I didn’t have any money so I took the courses which they allowed me to do but no diploma because I had to pay for that and I didn’t have any money. I had very good professors. In metallurgy one particular remember a man was walking around back and forth in front of the blackboard and saying metals live, and they have likes and have dislikes. And this went into the alloy formation and inter-metallic compounds and things like that. That was a good man, that was very helpful. There was one mediocre microscope available in the class. There was really no metallograph or anything like that.
United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration
And then I went to the United States because UNRRA, (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) made it possible for me to get into the [unintelligible]. I came to the states on the very distant relative lived in Sea Cliff, Long Island, New York and they found a place for me to stay. In the meantime my last wife, Xenia, lived in Canada. So I went to Canada a number of times, and eventually in 1950 we got married, and she’s tolerated me ever since.
Maine Research Corporation; controlled impedance
I started a new company, Maine Research Corporation. A small company, had 200 people making most of their boards and my customers were jet propulsion laboratory, MIT, Raytheon and people like that which was all military equipment.
And my background was a mixed thing. I built radios since I was a kid, winding day to intermediate frequency transformers and so on and so I had my fingers in electronics. At that time they were tubes. And the printed circuit technology was in the embryonic stages at the time but there was a need for controlled impedance, impedance matching so on and I designed process for making most of their boards with that in mind.
To get controlled impedance you have to control the line width because results in capacitance. I helped a great deal by building an attachment to the etching machine with a strip of copper, chiff [spelling?] copper being dragged over to platinum plated pins and take a sample of the solution from the etcher and spray it at that strip between the pins. And eventually the cup got [unintelligible] frequently actually it would break, and that interval was recorded and used to control the conveyer speed in the ether therefore plus or minus one thousandth it was easy thing to maintain on the conductor width. That familiarity with impedance problems led to my making contract with Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I made circuit boards for the Mariner IV space probe and then got into the difficult area of strong emotions that people had about welding. MIT and a lot of Air Force people didn’t like soldering so everything had to be welded.
Because of the vibration?
No, it’s a psychological quirk. No real reasons why you wouldn’t solder them. In fact ninety-nine percent of the stuff in electronics is soldered. If you do it incorrectly, you use a flux that creates a film before it cools down completely. You can have an actual open and you don’t have that in welding. If you had a film there it wouldn’t weld in the first place. But the feelings were so emotionally strong that everything had to be welded. Well you cannot weld to a printed circuit directly because the temperature boils off the epoxy and it’s a disaster. So I came up with a solution and got a patent on it which is called the Fusicon [spelling?] (fused connection). The way you do that is to place through the holes with copper; then I had tapered steel pins made, plated with copper and with indium, and pushed them in through the holes until it was very tight, and then throw it in the oven. In fact, when we moved to Maine and we bought an electric oven, that was the oven used for making the Fusicon process work. The first thing to have all this stuff was the Lunar Lander.
The reason that became important was that flat packs, at the time, were two ceramic plates with glass seal, and glass is peculiar in that -- when it becomes liquid – it creates a feather edge. If you wiggle the leads, the glass cracks and eventually moisture and other gases get in, and you have corrosion problems. In soldering, the lead comes out of the package, goes down and over, and that’s where it’s soldered. To overcome the fragility of the glass, I cut the leads off. It doesn’t come out straight, without the bend. Then the pins were finished off on a surface grinder so that the top of the pin was the correct distance from the circuit board surface so that -- when the flatpack was placed on it -- these leads would be directly over the pin and then you could use the ordinary resistance welding, which at that time a lot of people were practicing at a company called WIMS [spelling?] which did work for JPL and for MIT and Raytheon, and others. Unfortunately I did not think of bringing with me a sample of that.
In any event, you could visualize it, really. The thing sticks out on the bottom of the board, the top is ground so there would be coupler for placing the leads on it, and for placing in large things like power modules, input output transformers, and so on. The leads would go through the hole and then be at ninety degrees to the pin, and they were easily resistance welded. On the conventional printed circuit here we cannot do that. And the company created, Maine Research Corporation was doing high-end transmission work, radars. We built a sine-cosine generator for the SPS-30 radar of General Electric. That was a successful program. I still have one of them. It’s a box, you don’t know what it is, but to have somebody who is interested, they would probably find it very interesting. It’s a commutator, about eight inches in diameter, and it has a bunch of brushes sliding at three thousand RPM. General Electric and other people tried making these, and had metal-to-metal contact; there was no palladium, gold-plated brushes sliding, and they had to do it where [unintelligible] very quickly.
I used graphite impregnated with lithium chloride and some silver. If you remember maybe seeing an old electric motor where the slip rings are black where the commutator is black, and that’s what makes it work, because what happens is that a layer of graphite particles are embedded in the oxide, and now friction is graphite against graphite, which has a very low coefficient of friction. Yet I’ve seen people take sandpaper; take that black film off. It shortens the life of the commutator, also it becomes very noisy like the train.
I was working on electrical contacts and met Dr. Ragnar Holm [phonetic] who was a physicist. He got his PhD at the University of Uppsala in 1905. He was old; his hair was already yellow. People hated his guts because if somebody was making a presentation, he would break in and correct them right there. But he was a very knowledgeable person. I had no problem getting along with him. He wrote a book, Handbook of Electrical Contacts, which was published by Springer -Verlaag in Germany. It’s not really a handbook; it’s a textbook, and he goes into all kinds of detail and physics of the electrical contact. It’s really a bible for that area, very helpful, and you cannot buy these books anymore, long out of print. I made some copies for students at AMP because there is nothing equivalent in any one place. It covers the metallurgy, the solid state physics, the manufacturing processes that are applicable and so on, very good book. If you find a copy of Handbook of Electrical Contact by Holm, get one. It is a wonderful source of material.
I’ve been involved in consulting -- or insulting -- people in the industry for a long time. And I was very poor, so I would go and say, please give me a sample. And sometimes just to get rid of me they would give me a sample, and that’s how I started by collection. The collection is very important because students have no idea; they’re working with sketches, not with images of anything. This results in that they don’t develop a feel for the things. And a collection from that point of view is very important. The difficulty is that students have sticky fingers and samples disappear and evaporate and loose weight or whatever.
We went to through period of building analog computers. I still have one. It uses precision potentiometers and the resolvers and the mechanical gears and mechanical differential, and they are beautiful things because it’s very quick. You can make it run. We used these in the B52s and B29s and so on. But to most people they’re junk. But so much knowledge and personal interest went into building these machines that I found students who acquire an interest in them, and they go to junk yards, and buy electronic hardware, and start their own collections.
Sale of Maine Research Corporation to Rockwell
When I had my company, and Control Data Corporation didn’t pay their bills, so I had two point three million dollars in receivables which I couldn’t collect. I had started the company by borrowing money, so I had to pay it back, and the handwriting was on the wall, and eventually I had to sell the company. In the process of the attempting to sell it, a fellow by the name of Willard Smith -- who was the Vice President at AMP -- came visiting. Unfortunately he had just recently become Executive Vice President; he didn’t have the power to move quickly, and I didn’t have any time. So I sold the company to Rockwell. The reason was that Rockwell was a prime subcontractor to Boeing Aircraft and the Minuteman program. I made gazillions of boards for Minuteman Two and eventually for Minuteman Three so they knew my company and my process and everything very well. So they bought the company.
But Willard Smith came looking and he said, you know I’m sorry I cannot move fast enough for your conditions, but eventually you need a place to hang your hat; come to Harrisburg to AMP, and I did. I was working as a consultant for a year to Rockwell, for a year to AMP, and to some other smaller companies. So I practically lived in an airplane between Anaheim and Harrisburg, and my wife in the meantime handled the seven kids -- one person.
Universal stamping and forming machine
At AMP you were either mechanical, or electrical -- very few electrical people. I was a mixture, and handled equally well one or the other. I built some tools and a universal stamping and forming machine. One of them produced twenty three billion contacts and [unintelligible] fast, looks like at the end of the wire is a clip that slides over a flat pin.
They are used in coffee makers, in automobiles, in all kinds of equipment. The machine built over a four year period twenty three billion of them, and it never required sharpening because my method of stamping uses the high stripper plate pressure, where you clamp the materials, and have essentially zero clearance between punches and dies so there is no bending moment at the edge. Without the bending moment, there is no lateral stored energy when the thing goes through the die, and it doesn’t wear out. What happens is that essentially you develop a crack along the crystals or the metal, and they just [unintelligible] [background noise]. And that was a very successful program.
But the engineering was mostly from the bench; there was no real engineering so I started a school within AMP. It was called AMP University. I had seven university professors coming and going and teaching the courses in metallurgy, mechanics, processes and, -- most importantly -- electromagnetics. I had problems with even selecting people who were broad enough to take electrical and mechanical courses because most of them had practically nothing electrical, they knew what ohms were, but that was all. I picked students from the engineering pool for two years, that’s sixty hours a week; they called it the slave camp. But I picked the best professors I could find to teach them. Henry McKeller [spelling] who is known in electromagnetics can be very obnoxious sometimes, but he was the best teacher in the magnetic drivers area. He worked at the board without reference papers, without books, and he developed all the equations and proofs right there. He was a somewhat difficult teacher, but exceptionally knowledgeable, and he would dig into the students and see spots of understanding and then he would build on those. And Professor Fred Pryputniewicz at Worcester, who created the Laser holographic laboratory; it is a powerful technology.
AMP had twenty-three university contracts, and I would go around and look at them, find the professor with dirty fingernails, and give him some money to see what he did with it. Money would grow at Worcester; we sent more than a million dollars for that Laser holographic laboratory. It’s a technology that allows a noninvasive measurement of displacement of parts in four axon increments, the diameter of a couple of atoms. That was a very significant breakthrough because the connectors -- people say, “connectors, oh, big deal” -- but then they start failing, and it becomes a big deal. You need a spring which has a large deflection capability until it comes straight [?], all kinds of mismatches and so on. You have to have low resistance, low self inductance; I don’t know if it makes any sense to you. But the notion of the self inductions as frequency-less -- something that is exciting people who do the soldering and put things together. But it is a very crucial thing.
In my life I had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with some very interesting people. Whitaker was the founder of AMP. He was an exceptionally good person. He was very human. He has strict, and he built the company from nothing. He had a style of relying on the people from the bench, model makers, tool makers, because he did the thinking. And so Willard Smith, who was the Executive Vice President, was a perfect man to run the company. Unfortunately he smoked, and one day he got sick; two weeks later he was dead of lung cancer. He was a very good person. The people in the management who were left were mostly politicians, and that was all, AMP was gone now there’s nothing left. Any engineering and connector business is going on in Japan, nothing in Harrisburg.
Seymour Cray, a brilliant person, I found no problem communicating with him. He was brilliant. He would say something, he would state it clearly. He understood what I was saying from half a word, exceedingly pleasant guy. He got himself killed in a car accident unfortunately. But he -- more then anybody else that I met -- had understanding, appreciation, and insight into thermal behavior of parts.
Professor Pryputniewicz is following by creating a course in thermal mechanical engineering which is something which is frequently overlooked at different university programs, yet it’s the basis of all kinds of failure mechanisms. We had another professor, Ashok [spelling?] Meda [spelling?] who wrote his software himself, he didn’t have somebody else do it for him, very good man. A mechanical engineer and I used him to look at and verify my machine design problems and solutions.
So eventually I did something that you should do, don’t get old. And when you get old you are no longer needed by anybody. I was never good in playing company politics, and I didn’t. But at some point you know I’ve been invited to make presentations or lectures at different schools and so on. I did for awhile did a lot of that, not in the last ten years but before. I was hoping to have that collection of mine become a useful tool. It didn’t because they never did find a student, a graduate student that I could I share all the information I have. Four and half thousand color slides for illustrating different constructions and different processes. Putting these slides on the shelf is not helping anybody, and it is not something you can give out in small packages. It’s a continuous program. Unfortunately it did not become what I was hoping it would. Yes the hardware is there, but without -- I think -- the background for that hardware creation, and the reasons why it was done one way or another. And so here I am now in Middletown not doing anything useful and over 80 years old, just existing.
AIEE, IRE, and IEEE
But that’s not true. You’re still involved in IEEE activities and—
I was a member of AIEE and IRE and when they merged to become IEEE. So I go back, timewise, into the history of IEEE, a very useful organization. I never did get involved into the politics or administration of IEEE, but the IEEE had the Standards Committees. The Standards Committee is a very important and well-respected part of what IEEE is. They generate the standards, and the standards are enforceable. There are many people who don’t like the standards, so they fall off unfortunately. But it’s a good organization, and I am glad and honored to be part of it.
And that came about because people who were very active in IEEE organizations are often from Bell Laboratory people, whom I knew by interacting with them while they were all still there before the destruction of Bell Laboratory. Bell Laboratory left a significant mark in the technology development that produced a lot of key people. Do you know what Smith Charts are?
Well Mr. Smith was one of the Bell Laboratory people, very low-key, but extremely knowledgeable. He developed these charts. There were many other key people in Bell Laboratories. Somehow they had an atmosphere which supported creativity. Creativity is the wrong word because people say well he’s creative. God creates, inventors discover, then engineers synthesize solutions based on all that information. So I have 500 patents, and these are not fundamental discoveries but solutions to the perceived problems based on the mixture of technologies, electrical, mechanical, physical, chemical.
Working environment at AMP
How was the creative atmosphere at AMP? You mentioned that the atmosphere, intellectual atmosphere in the labs, was it similar at AMP or —
No. In AMP there were political camps and most of them were not scientists; they were people from the bench, very good people. They have developed the tooling which is not done easily and they were finding simple solutions, homegrown mostly. Eventually Joseph Sweeney, known as JPS, became Director of Technology and he did the battle with the management for money. I spent about two and a half million dollars developing that universal stamping machine, and it’s the kind of a thing that takes several years, and there is nothing to show in the meantime. It was first Willard Smith; then when he died it was Joe Sweeney.
I reported to him for seventeen years. He’s retired with a blind wife; lives not far from here, but he’s not really active nor can he be because of his wife’s condition. But he orchestrated interaction with twenty-three universities and funded their programs. For AMP, he was a key person. Willard Smith was absolutely the key person. The rest of the management were politicians.
The reason for large number of patents that I came up with was financial. We had subsidiaries in different countries including Japan, but Japan does not allow exporting the projects. So a mechanism was found where we could license in Japan based on patents and developments at AMP in Harrisburg. And so the money came in as royalty. That required periodical meetings with the Japanese at Goldman Agencies to demonstrate to them, to prove to them that the royalty was justified. We needed a flow of patents for that purpose, and I did a lot of that.
Getting patents is expensive. A patent costs, on average, sixteen thousand dollars for filing it, that is quite an investment by AMP Corporate, and was justified based on the royalties paid by AMP Japan. That’s basically it.
What about your work at Worcester Polytechnic?
It’s minimal. I am on staff, work with Professor Pryputniewicz mostly. I don’t lecture. I get into collisions with some students sometimes because they don't have a vocabulary, so they pick a word, assign new meaning to it, and proceed using it as if it is correct, and they object to being corrected. Thus the judge in the Master’s Degree Committee gets in conflict with students who are very sloppy in the selection of words supposed to convey something.
Pryputniewicz built his center of holographic establishment and extremely powerful technology. It becomes highly mathematical very quickly. But it allows you, for example, to take a picture of a side view of an airplane and then the B52’s -- and the C5 particularly -- have a vibration problem where the skin goes into resonance and then cracks. Pryputniewicz can read out the stress magnitude and locations through taking holographic pictures and so on. He was of tremendous importance to us at AMP because after awhile the springs relax so you design something with so many grams force per contact and two-three years later, the force is minimal, and you have no contact -- or an intermittent contact -- which is even worse. His technology allowed us to take a contact, stress it to seventy-five percent of the theoretical, take a picture; a minute later take a picture, and two minutes, four, and so on, up to a thousand hours, and that would allow us to plot stress and relaxation curves for this contact. The history of the material preparation has a profound effect on it because the stresses in the metal from the manufacturing process affect the properties of the finished product.
You’re rolling a surface maybe eight or ten inches wide. If you cut it into strips the way we usually do for making contact, the edges are different in the middle strip and the opposite edge may be different from this one. The people who were making flat stock very seldom pay much attention to these variations, but when you’re trying to develop a contact, and you need years of reliability built in it becomes very crucial. So his ability to get stress and relaxation measurements is a very significant part of connection design.
??? (Missing segment?)
…to mine, next time we went to vote we go in and there’s these women sitting with list and you check off and they tell you which booth to go to.
And with which position, they were going to get all upset, you cannot do that because that screws up their system. The system is there is a sequential number printed out in the voting machine so if you keep track who is going into which thing they can then read out that tape. And I stopped voting since that time, it’s all crooked, not really confidential.
I didn’t realize it was that simple.
I would have thought it was a little bit more—
—that it was a little bit more difficult than that to track how we were voting. That is very scary.
Yeah then if you switch positions in the line, the women get all upset. You cannot do that because it screws up the system.
Are there any questions that you think I should ask? Are there things that you would like—
[Unintelligible] not a technical person at all?
Well she says she is not, but we have a multilayer board which was a threat assessment module for the F14. Well, she was reading out the logic diagram when I would lay it out on paper [unintelligible].
I remember at one time in [unintelligible] [off mic] my husband [unintelligible] middle of the night I need a piece of paper and a pencil up at the night he [unintelligible] [laughter].
Early experiences in the U.S.
Career timeline; move to the U.S.
In that case I was wondering if I could go back over a few of the dates and specifics just to make sure I have them for the transcript of what year you moved to Munich and also—
That was [1946?] [off mic].
Right after the war. And when did you come to the United States?
October 1949. An eleven-day trip by boat, and the ship was one of these Liberty ships -- US General McCray -- and it developed a crack, and we were taking in water, so they stretched the cables from the front to the back of the ship. Then we had an escort by military cruiser; there was nothing he could do anyway. It was October, which is a bad month for traveling, and the sea was very unfriendly. On the ship everybody was seasick. They said there were something like twelve hundred immigrants in that ship, the smell was terrible. I was met at the pier in New York City by friends, so from then on it was straightforward.
Watches of Switzerland
I needed a job, so the gentleman who provided the room for me to stay in the meantime, he was going to work in New York, and offered to give me a ride. He dropped me off in front of the 42nd Street Library, and he said, “I will pick you up here at 5:30,” and off I went. Went up 5th Avenue, all the big jewelry shops; they’re all Jewish and understand German. So I got a job by 1:00 that day at Watches of Switzerland, Incorporated at 5th Avenue and 48th Street, which is right next to the diamond center. I worked there for a number of years. He was Swiss, and his wife. He specialized in providing movements from Switzerland for putting in watch cases by companies like Tiffany’s and others.
Independent watch repair
Then I decided -- the mistake -- to start on my own. It was an hour and half each way going to work and coming back. A fellow whom I met said, “No problem, what do you need?” I said, “I need to buy some equipment. There’s a machine called Watch Masters, it does the timing of the watch.” Instead of waiting several days to adjust the time, you could do that right there. He said he will provide the money, eight hundred dollars a month. I went to place the order for the machine and some of the tools, but he never came up with the money. The machine came in; you had to pay for it. So for a very long time we were very, very tight with money. And I would go collect the work from the watch makers and repair them at home, and then deliver them back. You really cannot make a business that way.
Powers Chem Co., Photo Circuits
Eventually I went to Powers Chem Co., which was a company making equipment for the engraving of plates for the printing business. They were also building color separation cameras for making the printing plates. There was the president of what they called the Photo Circuit Corporation block of Chemco, and they hired me, and I worked there for a number of years.
We had a large plating tank. It was a five thousand-gallon gold-plating tank, and we needed to add a filter. So we did that. I went to the stockroom; got a piece of plastic, and the machine adapter from the filter to the tank and back and everything was fine. Then on Monday came in and the tank was empty. The cyanide solution destroyed the fitting, and all that gold solution went down the sink and into a little creek, I guess, polluted the water.
I went to John Maxwell who was the President of Photo Circuits and he was accessible and I told him what happened. He stiffened up, looked at me, and says, “Don’t do it again.” That was it, and I didn’t do it again. He was a very nice person.
Then Photo Circuits merged with Cole [spelling?] Morgan group of companies. Vice President Jim Swigard [spelling?] said, “You know what we need to do is capitulate to the Soviets, let them come over and take over. That will kill them, 'cause it’s too big.” He was Princeton graduate, and Princeton at the time was very left-wing organization. So anyway I was reasonably successful at Photo Circuit, and built a numerical control drilling machine in 1957. I went to Maxwell and said, “You know, I want to build a drilling machine.” He says, “How’s it going to work, so it can do this, that? Okay, go ahead, do it.” He says, “How much is it going to cost?” I said, “I don't’ know, could be hundred thousand dollars.” “Well, go do it.” And that was a very significant thing because when he said, “You go do it,” I was exempt from the review committees and all kinds of other nonsense that the corporation had. Chemco was a mostly chemical company. They were building these large etchers using nitric acid to etch the plates. With his blessing, I didn’t have to report to anybody. I just went ahead and did it.
I built the machine using a very large reinforced concrete structure because -- when using carbide drills which are very, very brittle -- if the machine shakes, they break. As that machine was working, there was a window into the conference room upstairs which is where the Board meetings took place and there were people sitting in there, looking out the window and seeing this machine that I was working on. They came down to look, and at the right moment, one of the hydraulic hoses broke off and sprayed everybody with the hydraulic fluid, hot. So I got a bunch of very kind smiles and, they sent the stuff over to the drycleaners. It was a terrible afternoon.
That machine was working at 1957, by September, and it ended its life by people coming with jack hammers and breaking all that concrete apart, because Hitachi drilling machines became available commercially, and will do similar things. But this was a big machine. It had a seventy-two by a hundred-sixty inch table moved by several mechanisms, hydraulic pistons. They were controlled by several valves. It was very interesting. I built the amplifiers using Williams Hi-Fi push-pull amplifiers. I just added the stage for tachometer feedback to it. It was an interesting papizon [phonetic].
Lunar module components, Apollo projects
Tell me some more about the Lunar Module components that you worked on.
The Lunar Lander components that you worked on, the Apollo projects.
The only part that I worked on is creating the weldable circuit board. Raytheon built the assemblies, so I wasn’t involved with that at all. At that time, I didn’t have the clearance necessary to do it officially anyway. The Lunar Lander was a rather large thing. It was about maybe five feet in diameter and a bunch of legs sticking out so on. I didn’t have anything to do with its assembly. My contribution was creating the Fusicon. The Apollo fly guidance computer used Fusicon and was initially was built by MIT instrumentation laboratory, and eventually by Raytheon. Somebody else built the memory module. You get involved with these programs; it’s so politically run. You have to have known somebody and somebody will introduce you to somebody. It’s a difficult organization to penetrate. But I was somewhat successful. I made some friends, and staying friends with people who, this time were from Bell Laboratories mostly. Ultimately this is how I got this bronze medal as a result of that connection.
Well I thank you very, very much for giving up your time.
You are welcome.
-- for the interview. It’s been fascinating. I really enjoyed it very, very much.
I hope you have as well. I’m delighted to have heard these stories and particularly about the bomb, that is a great story.
- 1 About Dimitry Grabbe
- 2 About the Interview
- 3 Copyright Statement
- 4 Interview
- 4.1 Childhood and education
- 4.2 Military academy, bombing raids
- 4.3 Mechanical training, watch repair
- 4.4 Higher education
- 4.5 United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration
- 4.6 Maine Research Corporation; controlled impedance
- 4.7 Electrical contacts
- 4.8 Analog computers
- 4.9 Sale of Maine Research Corporation to Rockwell
- 4.10 AMP
- 4.11 Presentations
- 4.12 AIEE, IRE, and IEEE
- 4.13 Working environment at AMP
- 4.14 Patents
- 4.15 Worcester Polytechnic
- 4.16 Material preparation
- 4.17 Voting machines
- 4.18 Early experiences in the U.S.
- 4.19 Lunar module components, Apollo projects