First-Hand:Project Engineering on a Broad Scale

Submitted by Price Wickersham

My first job in 1943 was in the experimental development department of a major aircraft engine manufacturer. There I was involved with engine test instrumentation at one hundred seventy bucks a month. I remember the janitor wouldn't take me up on my offer to trade paychecks.

But my first in-depth job experience was after I got out of the service and joined Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. As a central technical facility for a wide variety of midwestern industries, we were challenged from all sides to solve an incredible variety of problems. Here's a short list of only some of the projects I had during the ten years I was there:

  • An instrument to measure uteral contractions and cervical distensibility in the birth process.
  • In 1950, we attempted to develop a hearing aid imbedded in eye glasses using some of the very first Bell Labs point contact transistors. (They came in cute little felt-lined boxes.) This project failed. The transistors were too damn noisy.
  • An airborne target drone to measure the angle and miss distance of .50 caliber machine gun bullets.
  • A servomechanical weighing device for high speed filling of coffee cans and cottage cheese containers in a production environment.
  • An early microwave (1948) in a sandwich vending machine, using a WWII radar magnetron. This project flopped because juices in the meat would make the bread soggy. It's a little funny, but some of the project failures were as much fun as those that succeeded.

The best library backup. At a place like Midwest Research Institute, customers would come in and expect you to pretty much be an "expert" on a wide range of applications. My engineers and I would do our best to put up a facade of understanding at initial meetings until we could hasten to the Linda Hall Library a few blocks away in Kansas City. That, and perhaps the John Crerar library in Chicago, are in my opinion, probably the two best technical libraries in the country, supporting clients all over the world. (I say that, having gone to several of the big west and east coast university libraries.) We'd go to Linda Hall and give ourselves a crash course on whatever subject. We could count on Linda Hall having what we needed. When you aren't too smart that makes a real difference.

The course of reactionaries. To me, "reactionary" is a dirty word. I always told my guys they could call me damn near anything they wanted to, but never call me a "reactionary." The engineering profession in its innovative pursuits is confronted so often by reactionaries who will not readily accept new ideas that have a modicum of risk.

Two examples: The lawyer/accountant team was a major adversary. We undertook the development of a minicomputer in 1961 as sort of a bootleg project (before disk memories, cheap RAM/ROM and the PDP/8) and had our chain pulled after three to four months of work. The reason from the lawyer/accountant adversaries: "IBM isn't doing this!" And then in 1969, we made a fairly detailed proposal for an in-circuit test system development. At that time, there were none on the market, a market that in the seventies grew to several hundred million. No funds were authorized for this new direction, but funds were authorized for more routine extensions of what we'd been doing.

In my projects, almost all had significant unknown segments. Stuff that hadn't been done before (at least by me). So it's been a succession of pre-ball game commitments on time and money, euphoria and fun for the first few innings, some concern in middle innings, and in many cases, sweat and stomach-churning coming into the ninth. Some ball games go into extra innings or are just plain lost, either result with a significant flurry of recriminations.

One example: we had committed to deliver a very complicated $1.5 million system to a big Japanese company. It had a lot of new stuff we hadn't done before, both hardware and software. Come the end of the month it was due, but we couldn't meet specifications on several issues. The customer was continually on our back reminding us of the huge sums it was going to cost him each day it was late. Sleep was lost. Luckily a couple of my bright young engineers came up with a solution I'd never have thought of. We shipped it out and got it accepted two weeks late. Incidentally, after forty plus years of my love/hate relations with all sorts of project engineering, that one pulled the chain on my retirement.