First-Hand:Transitions in Engineering, Technology and Life

Submitted by Donald Schover

There wasn't money available to send me to a recognized trade school. RCA Institute had a branch at that time in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago where I did janitorial work for part of my tuition. There I received a primitive education in math, physics and circuit theory. Upon graduation, I studied for a first class radiotelephone license and got my first job as an engineer in a small Wisconsin radio station.

I think the most interesting time of my engineering life was the period of 1943 to 1945 when I was the instrumentation engineer for a group of radio-chemists at Clinton Laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I was responsible for providing all of the radiation measurement instrumentation for the group and maintaining and supervising its use.

New radio isotopes were being identified and characterized frequently. I saw the first macroscopic sample of plutonium when our building staff was solemnly marched past a large test tube of a dark purple liquid.

When I finally got dangerous with vacuum tube circuit design, the transistor appeared and had so many advantages that it was indispensable. When I finally got comfortable with transistor circuit models, integrated circuits appeared and design became more a matter of system design than circuit design. Of course, this was all done in the analog world. Now came the design of measurement techniques using sampling and digitizing techniques. I loved it all and had the rare opportunity to play with it and be in on the first applications of computer chips. I think what most impressed me about computer chips was that they were so inexpensive (cost, space, and power wise) that you could afford to waste their capabilities. I asked for and was given permission to go to all of the pertinent company divisions to tell them what these devices could do. Also, I told them how they could be applied to that division's operations.

Most of my career was involved in research and development for the government. This usually involved answering RFPs (Request for Proposals) with formal and rigidly formatted design concepts. In order to have any chance of winning a contract, you had to be unrealistically optimistic regarding the anticipated cost, schedule and the technical chances for success. I always had guilty feelings about a bid that I had worked on, but that's what the government demands and that's what you have to do to get a job. The only mitigating factor is that I was involved in a number of highly successful jobs that were procured through this unrealistic process.

Although my company had led me to believe that I could work for them as long as I wished, work was in scarce supply in 1983, and my salary was up there. They had sent me to a series of lectures on the major aspects of retirement: health, relocation, economics, life style change. The sessions were helpful.

Nevertheless, I felt betrayed and cast adrift for a time. My wife was retired. It was a double jolt for us both. My wife arranged a consultant corporation for me. I have done some control systems work and a great deal of volunteer software program design for a volunteer organization (Executive Service Corps) but that's another story. My big love now is personal computer software and the amazing things one can do with the available tools.

P .S.: What magic fatal disease causes the destruction of creativity and skill on one's sixty-fifth birthday?

I often had the feeling that a lot of the very esoteric articles were written by professors and graduate students to impress each other and snow the illiterates out there with mathematical symbols and arcane formulae. All of my self-study knowledge gains have come from well written textbooks or good tutorial articles in technical magazines. The direct help I've received from IEEE is a couple of home study courses and the group insurance plan.