First-Hand:An Engineer's Career in Academia


Submitted by W. Jack Cunningham

From early on, the course of my life was directed toward something technical. My paternal grandparents had moved to a small town in west Texas (Comanche) to escape the devastation brought to their home area of northeastern Alabama by the Civil War. My grandfather set up a general store and, at one time, would go in a covered wagon one hundred miles to the nearest railhead to get items for sale.

Under the circumstances, my grandmother (Harriet Jack Cunningham-she had been Miss Jack and my father and I were named for her) learned to make all sorts of household repairs. Since things were difficult to replace, there was no other way to keep them operating. By the time I was born, she was a widow with little money living in a large, deteriorating house that needed constant attention. When I was a small child she taught me how to use her extensive box of tools, and soon saw to it that I had a toolbox of my own. Before I started going to school, I was making crude wooden models of the World War I airplanes that flew overhead.

My mother's youngest brother (Tom Moore) was a self-taught electrical engineer. On a visit to his home, I was given a magneto from a hand-cranked telephone system. A spin of the crank would produce about one hundred volts ac, but with little current.

Neighbors' chickens were ruining my aunt's flower beds. My uncle decided to solve the problem. He arranged a pan full of moistened bread, supported on insulating blocks above a puddle of water in the flower bed. Long wires connected the magneto to the pan and the puddle. I was to hide behind a bush, wait until a chicken began to peck in the pan, and then crank the magneto. This caused the chicken to leap several feet in the air, screeching wildly, and rush madly off when it hit the ground again. An exciting afternoon was had by everyone.

After graduation from Waco High School in 1933, in the depth of the depression, I attended Baylor University for two years because my mother was able to promote a tuition scholarship. Also, I could live at home with minimum expense. During this time, I worked afternoons in a shop repairing home radios, receiving my lunches and three dollars a week.

In 1935, I transferred to the University of Texas (Austin), and majored in physics. I lived in a dormitory with its own dining hall where the monthly fee for room and board was thirty dollars, rising to thirty-three dollars the last year I was there. I worked as an assistant in the physics laboratories. We were paid our eighteen dollars a month with checks that were not valid when we received them. Only after the state legislature made necessary appropriations, following several months' delay, were the checks cashable. Meanwhile, there were small establishments which made a business of cashing the checks at a discount. The last year I was in Austin, I was paid four hundred and fifty dollars by the University, now in cashable checks. I was able to meet all my expenses for the year and have a little left over. I stayed three years, receiving both the bachelor's and master's degree in physics.

I was impressed by a young physics professor, Paul Boner. Boner had done his graduate study at Harvard University. The second year I was at the University of Texas, he managed to have two of his students accepted by Harvard for graduate study. The next year he asked me if I would like to go to Harvard. Naturally, I said yes I wanted to go. Wi and recommendations from him and from his colleague, Arnold Romberg, helped me get accepted there.

My graduate work was almost completed so I was looking for a job for September, 1946. A Harvard graduate student, with an undergraduate electrical engineering degree from Yale University, suggested I explore a faculty position at Yale. I did so and, just before the fall term opened, I agreed to go to Yale as a lecturer in electrical engineering at an annual salary of four thousand dollars.

With the great influx of students and faculty following the war, housing in New Haven was hard to find. Al Conrad, who hired me, found for us the second floor of an old row house. A family of a full professor of physics (back from the Navy) occupied the floor above, and a law student's family on the floor below. Our kitchen had a flimsy metal box that required a man delivering a block of ice each day. The oil burner for a common steam heating system shut off all too often because the available fuel oil was of such poor quality it would fail to ignite. We had no auto, but the streetcar system allowed us to get about New Haven.

Electrical engineering at Yale was making the transition from power machinery to electronics. At the same time I was hired, Herb Reich joined the faculty to boost electronics and John Bower came to start work in servomechanisms. There were so many student in 1946-47 that classes began at eight in the morning, and laboratory sessions were being conducted in the evening. An experiment on resonance was done using an alternator as a voltage source, driven by a variable speed de motor, both of about ten horsepower capacity. Electronic circuits for experiments were constructed on aluminum baking pans in lieu of hard-to-get metal chassis.

The first few years I was at Yale, I did occasional work for industrial organizations, and from time to time considered shifting out of academia. It was not long, however, before I found myself buying my own cap and gown to take part in the annual graduation ceremonies. I realized that I had made a commitment to the academic life. I remained in the engineering department at Yale for forty-two years, and retired in 1988.

During that time I rotated in and out of most of the positions that can be filled by a faculty member. Many changes took place in the administrative arrangements for Yale engineering. Some worked well; some worked less well. The technology continually changed,from tubes to transistors to silicon chips, from slide rules to calculators to mainframes to personal computers. It was an interesting challenge to keep up to date, and to transfer what was going on into courses that could be taught to students. I taught courses in the areas involving electrical engineering, classical physics, and applied mathematics.