First-Hand:Education and Management in an IEEE Life Member's Career
Submitted by George Platts
The decision to enter engineering college came as a result of a most interesting experience at Walnut Hills High School. I was fortunate enough to enter with the first class in the old Walnut Hills High School building. This structure had been condemned years earlier by the city building department. However, it had been renovated to accommodate the first college preparatory classical high school in Cincinnati, and its first six-year high school.
One year, an assembly of all the students was held in the room normally used as a study hall. The purpose was to allow some senior students to demonstrate radio equipment which they owned. It was fascinating to me and I resolved then and there to study "radio" engineering in college.
Of course, there was no radio engineering degree offered at the University of Cincinnati (UC). As a result, I registered for an electrical engineering degree. The co-op engineering course originated by Dean Herman Schneider was a godsend because it enabled me to buy tuition, books and fees with my job earnings. I also had the advantage of living at home, thus avoiding room and board costs. I supplemented radio engineering by building radio sets at home, starting with a crystal set and finally graduating into more sophisticated ware.
The radio courses available were meager, indeed, but we did get a few. As to the classmates' names, I can recall a few: Henry Suter, who had worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories for a few years before entering UC; Paul Goodell, who could not finish because his co-op job ended and he needed the income to pay his way; Ben Ross, who died a few years after graduation; Frank Fugman; and, I particularly remember my alternate (on the co-op job), George Pettibone. He did me a great favor by letting me work in his place during the six weeks vacation period when he wanted to go home to Rockford, Illinois. It seems I only remember a few names but, after all, we only had sixteen students in our graduating class. Of course, the class of alternates we never saw.
I have always had difficulty with people at UC in trying to explain that the electrical engineering degree we got was not a bachelor's in electrical engineering. It was explained to us—at the time of the award—that the combination of academic studies and practical work elevated our status to electrical engineer. If you consult the records, you will find that the co-op jobs we held had to be approved by the coordinator to be certain the proper practical experience was being obtained on the job.
I remember one class member had a well paying job when registering at UC. The coordinator would not approve it, so he had to take a lesser job to qualify. I worked the five years with the Cincinnati Bell Telephone Company with continuous rotation to different departments.
Time marches on! In the fall of 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. There was no doubt what his eventual aim was. President Roosevelt knew that the U.S. would have to enter the war. Remember the Lend-Lease Program? Remember the destroyers we sent to Great Britain? I was a member of the Naval Reserve. On June 9, 1941, almost ten years after I had graduated, and almost six moths before Pearl Harbor, I was called to active duty as a Lieutenant - Junior Grade, United States Naval Reserve.
Strangely enough, I was ordered to the office of the Inspector of Naval Material. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, The Crosley Corporation was given a contract to build the proximity fuze. The Commanding Officer of the Inspector of Naval Material called me into his office and showed me a crude sample of what turned out to be a proximity fuze.
He said, "Did you ever see anything like this?"
I replied, "No, sir, but it has a clear plastic nose in which there appear to be some small vacuum tubes like those used in a hearing aid."
He then said, "Crosley is to make five thousand per day, but first they must develop a practical manufacturing model to put in production. I want you to take charge of the office at the Crosley factory. Their contract is to be of the cost-plus-fixed-fee type and will require close management by your office."
"But," I said, "I was working for Crosley when I was called to active duty. Would the Navy approve of that?"
He replied, "You are the only electronics engineer I have, and we cannot delay."
So, we worked day and night with the Crosley people and representatives of the Applied Physics Laboratory which had developed the crude model. In one year's time, five thousand per-day were being produced.
What was the proximity fuze? It was a device which, when incorporated in an antiaircraft shell, would explode if it came within range of a plane. Formerly, all the Navy had was a time fuze which would strike the target only by accident. I went on to open another plant in the east to expand Navy production, another to make fuzes for the British Navy and, finally, one to make fuzes for the Army.
When the war ended, I wondered how I would find something else this exciting. Obviously, I had moved from an engineer status to a manager status, but it was still a challenge to find something equally exciting. Well, I made three stabs at it and, lo and behold, I entered the General Electric Company almost exactly twenty years after they made me their original offer.
Finally, after we attended five years of engineering school all on a co-op basis, we graduated in 1931. We found ourselves in the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce. However, a recruiter from the General Electric (GE) Company came to interview prospects. He offered jobs to three of us—George Pettibone, Richard Steves, and myself. We were flattered.
George Pettibone accepted and spent his entire career with GE. Richard Steves declined because he wanted to stay in Cincinnati. I said I would accept if I could get a job in radio. The recruiter said that all new electrical engineering recruits went into the "test course." This course involved checking out large motors and generators before shipping them to the customers. However, he agreed to talk to a "Mr. Wilson" who was in charge of radio to see if he would take on a new electrical engineer.
I suppose the depression made GE's radio business poor, hence Mr. Wilson had no opening for me. Perhaps some readers will remember that when radio first went into production, there was an arrangement between GE and Westinghouse to make products marketed under the name of RCA. Eventually, the federal antitrust division insisted that this was a monopoly, so the GE and Westinghouse facilities had to be turned over to RCA, which became an independent company.
So I job hunted with the idea that I would take almost anything remotely connected with electrical (preferably radio) engineering until I could get what I had always wanted. I started off working with a one-man firm that sold high quality electric motors and mercury switches.
This hardly related to radio, but it at least brought in a pay check. After about six months, I found out that a man who had run a retail radio and phonograph business (which went bust in the depression) was going to represent a company which made sound systems. This seemed a bit closer to what I wanted, so I went to work for him.
Unfortunately, he was still broke. That meant long hours and little pay. But, fortunately, I had a neighbor who worked for the Crosley Corporation. It had started out as a mass producer of radios, then added ranges, refrigerators and stokers. My neighbor got a job for me there.
I worked on the development of auto radios and a power supply that could convert the six volt battery supply in a car to the high voltage for the plate circuits of the vacuum tubes. But the best part was not only did the Crosley Corporation make all this stuff; it owned a 50 KW radio station as well.
Powell Crosley was not satisfied with 50 KW, he wanted something much bigger. So, he applied for and got a 500 KW experimental license for WLW, then bought a RCA transmitter (at this stage still being made by GE and Westinghouse). This had a high power stage to attach to his existing 50 KW Western Electric transmitter. The high power stage consisted of a radio frequency power amplifier receiving its audio signal from a power modulator.
No sooner was this put on the air than Powell Crosley applied to operate a 500 KW full time. The Federal Radio Commission issued the full time 500 KW license-and WL W became The Nation's Station.
The Chief Engineer decided that the signal did not have the quality the Nation's Station should have. We immediately began work on improving the modulator. This was a task involving going to Mason, Ohio. That's where the transmitter and its eight hundred and thirty-one foot antenna were located. We made all possible preparations in advance of twelve midnight. As soon as WL W went off the air, we began our work. We had only a few hours because everything had to be put back together by six a .m. when WLW went on the air. After many nights of this short schedule, we had the quality our Chief Engineer, R. J. Rockwell, deemed acceptable.
After 27 years in management, I decided, at age 60, to take the optional retirement being offered by my employer. I would concentrate my efforts entirely on volunteer work. I can frankly say that since making that decision, I have enjoyed the most challenging management career of my life.
Faced with managing volunteers who, of course, do not follow "orders," I have had to become a persuader. I have to convince volunteers that what I thought should be done was really their own idea. If I succeeded, my idea became their idea because they believed in it were not merely "sold" on it. Of course, I did not score one hundred percent because I was dealing with people of different backgrounds and different beliefs. If people are given an "order," they don't believe in, they will not do their best. They must be convinced of its value and be enthusiastic to utilize their abilities.
As soon as I "retired," a former business associate asked me to serve on a chamber of commerce environmental control committee of which he was chairman. In less than a year, he accepted an offer to manage an overseas operation. He asked me to take on the chairmanship, and I agreed to do so. I appointed some new members to the committee, one a regional editor of the local newspaper, one an attorney, and one a retired physician.
We met monthly and, in three years, we were able to write a county environmental control ordinance that was enacted. In addition, a county environmental control director was appointed at our recommendation, an annual prize for the best science project was established as part of the science fair. The county school system also agreed to our suggestion that environmentally related aspects of a subject be taught in public schools.
Then I began to expand my retirement activities. I had a deep interest in the Easter Seal Society, which treats the handicapped with several kinds of therapy. We had the good fortune to have a local organization known as the Junior Service League start this service.
The League had formed the Volusia County Easter Seal Society for Crippled Children and Adults, with its own officers and board of directors. I served as chairman of the Easter Seal Annual Campaign for three years, as treasurer for three years, and as president for one year.
Later, I was elected by the Florida Easter Seal Society as a member of its board of directors. I served for one year as treasurer, followed by two years as president of this organization, which oversees all the local service societies in the state. I was also elected a delegate to the National Easter Seal Society convention for three years, representing the Florida Society. I continue as a member of the boards of both the local and state societies.