First-Hand:How I Chose My Profession



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My father, George W. Swenson, was the founding professor and department head of Electrical Engineering at the Michigan College of Mining and Technology (Now Michigan Technological University) from the department’s inception in 1928 to his retirement in 1960, and I grew up in Houghton, Michigan in the immediate vicinity of the campus from the age of six in 1928 until called to Army duty in 1942.

With the exception of four years of Army Signal Corps service in World War II, I’ve lived and worked on university campuses all my life.

Ham radio

I experimented with electricity from early childhood. Though Dad was an electrical engineer, I don’t recall that he actively encouraged me in this. Maybe he was just very subtle about it, but I rather think it was a spontaneous thing. Dad did bring home used dry batteries that were discarded from the College labs, and there were switches, low voltage light bulbs, sockets, bell wire, and suitable tools around the house. After about age 11 I had a shop in the attic, with a sturdy work bench and a set of tools of my own, which could be supplemented from Dad’s shop in the basement. I spent a lot of time up there in the “Swensonian Institute.” There were kindred spirits, too. First Bruce Stern, then, during high school years Jim Jones (later Professor Jones of Michigan Tech). We built one-tube regenerative short wave receivers. Jim and I once mystified our bored teacher in high-school physics lab by tuning an oscillator to interfere with the radio station on which he was trying to hear the World Series while we supposedly performed a stupidly rudimentary mechanics experiment in the back of the lab.

In my junior year in high school Herb and Cliff Brooks moved into the neighborhood. Herb was a college freshman and Cliff was his younger brother, my age, who came to Houghton to live with Herb because their parents lived too far from a suitable high school. Herb was a licensed amateur radio operator and their room in the boarding house on Seventh Street was filled with fascinating gear. The college had a fine ham station, too, W9YX, which I had the privilege of visiting regularly because of Dad’s position. Cliff and I decided to learn the Morse code, and we thought it would be a good idea to have a telegraph line between our houses. For a very modest investment we acquired a half-mile of #16 galvanized steel wire and some porcelain knob insulators. The route was straight south up the hill, seven blocks, over the bluff, through folks’ yards, across streets, over mine dumps and pastures, with the wire attached to trees, garages, and utility poles. We didn’t bother with a franchise or easements, though I believe we got Mrs. Frimodig’s permission to nail an insulator to the eaves of her garage. Dad found us a couple of antique polarized telegraph relays. With a dry battery, two buzzers and a couple of dime store telegraph keys we were in business. I borrowed a dog-eared copy of the Radio Amateur Handbook and some old copies of QST from Herb, and studied the exam questions for the Class C radio operator license exam. I knew the code from Boy Scout merit badge studies and with practice over the telegraph line I quickly achieved the 13 words-per-minute needed to pass the FCC amateur Class C license test. It was a mail-order test since we lived so far from an FCC office—Herb administered the code test. Later I visited some larger city, probably Duluth on one of my weekend expeditions to visit the orthodontist, and upgraded to a Class A license which allowed more extensive privileges.

As a fully fledged ham (age 16) with my own call sign, W9HTD, I now gained entree to a more senior fraternity of enthusiasts. I must have been a real pest to the electronics instructors at Tech and to the students operating W9YX. Everyone was encouraging, though, and these contacts helped shape my eventual professional direction.

A moment of inspiration

Dad’s work and his work environment always fascinated me and I admired him extravagantly. From the earliest time I hung around Hotchkiss Hall, mainly in the electrical engineering labs but also in the Seaman Geological Museum on the top floor. One day after school I dropped into his office and his secretary told me he’d gone to the copper smelter to troubleshoot some electrical problem for Mr. Schubert, the plant superintendent. I hopped on the bike and pedaled furiously the two miles through town, past Van Orden’s coal dock to the smelter and talked my way past the gatekeeper who told me that Dad and Mr. Schubert were in the power plant. I found them standing next to a large direct-current generator, the old-fashioned, large diameter, slow-speed kind with many poles, driven by a broad leather belt from a double-acting Corliss steam engine. They explained that the generator had recently returned from an overhaul in Milwaukee, and it wasn’t working. The factory engineer had reinstalled it but couldn’t find the trouble. There was a smaller, temporary generator to supply d-c to the plant’s tram system, without which the plant couldn’t function, but it was smoking and sparking from overload, even with an electric fan blowing on it. Mr. Schubert looked worried, I thought.

Down in a greasy pit with the steam engine and the base of the big generator was a sweaty electrician with a voltmeter and above him on the curb of the pit was Dad in his trim business suit, spotless white collar, necktie and shiny shoes. The man in the pit made a number of measurements as the machine spun and the steam pistons hissed back and forth. Finally, Dad said he had the data he needed and that we’d better be getting home to supper.

The meal over, Dad retired to the study with a few books and his slide rule and after an hour or so he came downstairs to the telephone to tell George Schubert that he’d solved the problem and that if the night shift electrician would do so-and-so, the machine would perform as required. To me he explained that the stator of the generator had become demagnetized somehow, and that all it needed was a little boost from another d-c source in order to regain its ability to self-excite. I thought I understood and I was stimulated by the whole exercise.

I realized that I’d seen an expert in action, and I decided then and there that I wanted to be an expert. After the ham radio experience, this episode probably was the defining moment that determined my future.

High school graduation soon followed, and my first real job: lifeguard at the Onigaming Yacht Club. Some time during the previous semester I’d taken an exam for a scholarship in a national competition conducted by the Radio Corporation of America. In midsummer I was invited to New York for a month’s further evaluation by the contest judges, as one of the eleven semifinalists from across the country. Fred Kellow took over as lifeguard and I headed east. At the end of the most exciting period of my life till then, I was selected as the winner of what was for its day an exceptionally liberal prize, intended to subsidize all four years of undergraduate studies in radio engineering. The die was cast, and although World War II later intervened to complicate matters, I enrolled as a freshman in Electrical Engineering at Michigan Tech that fall, September 1940

Submitted by George W. Swenson, Jr., Life Fellow