First-Hand:First-Hand:From a Colorado Farm to the Bureau of Reclamation: An IEEE Life Member's Story


Submitted by Thomas M. Austin

I was in high school when I first heard about electrified railroads and dreamed of being the engineer to electrify the big western railroads; however, I never did that.

I grew up on a farm. My father encouraged me to enter the electrical field after we got electric service on the farm about 1920. We first considered a trade school, but settled on an engineering education. We lived in southern Colorado, and decided on the University of Colorado at Boulder because it had the best electrical engineering program in Colorado and was conveniently located. In 1932 another senior, Fred W. Cooper, and I wrote a paper on non-linear magnetic circuits. This paper won the 1932 AIEE National Prize for a student paper, and was later published in the AIEE Journal.

I graduated from Colorado University in 1932 at the bottom of the depression. None of the graduates that year received a job offer. I was fortunate enough to received a graduate assistantship at Iowa State college, where I obtained my MSEE degree in 1933. From 1933 to 1936, I had five short jobs with little engineering content, interspersed with periods of unemployment. In 1936, I finally obtained a job with the Southern Colorado Power Company in Pueblo, Colorado, starting as a "grunt" on a line maintenance crew, at forty cents per hour. From there I progressed to power plant switchboard operator, then to draftsman in the vice president’s office.

In 1939, the Roosevelt administration relaxed the requirement for a political endorsement for all jobs and offered a civil service examination for engineers. I took this examination for engineers and obtained a job with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in October, 1939, as a junior engineer.

In the Bureau of Reclamation, we usually worked in teams on projects which had been authorized by Congress. When I arrived at the Transmission Line Design Section, standards had been defined for each voltage. We could modify them slightly and develop better methods of implementing them. A suggestion system was in effect which encouraged individuals to make innovative suggestions, and rewarded the individual with money for the suggestions which were adopted.

I wrote papers on some of our innovations and designs. Some of these papers were published in the AIEE/IEEE Transactions. When a paper was accepted by the IEEE, I was sent, expenses paid, to deliver the paper at a meeting. In data processing, we had more freedom as computer use was new to the Bureau and we were developing methods of problem analysis and computer programs to solve the problems.

I joined the AIEE while a student. Also, while a student, I joined Tau Beta Pi, Eta Kappa Nu, Sigma Yi, and Phi Kappa Phi as rewards for scholastic excellence. I don't think I met any people strictly as a result of being an IEEE member.