Happy Birthday, Dad.

January 17th, 2017

It would be my Dad’s 94th birthday today, and I’ve been thinking about how he influenced me to follow in his footsteps and become an engineer.

Dad kept current with technology by reading electronics magazines, and taking on various projects so he could understand how things worked. Digital and solid state electronics were just coming along in 1957, so to understand them he built a flip-flop from some transistors on a bread board (actually a piece of knotty pine left over from the wainscoting he installed in the kitchen.   The state of the multivibrator was indicated by a neon bulb and the flip-flop was powered by a dry cell.  When he would come home from work, I would ask him to plug in the dry cell, and I would be thrilled watch the light go on and off.

Among his projects were a Heathkit audio oscillator (probably a knock-off of the famous Hewlett-Packard product) and Oscilloscope (with a 5 Megacycle bandwidth).  Sometimes I would get to ‘help,’ holding the soldering iron, while he guided the iron and held the solder.  One of Dad’s favorite photos was of me pretending to solder the ‘sistors and densors’ (I couldn’t pronounce the full words)

A real project was fixing the RCA Victor television set in the living room.  As a five-year old it was difficult to hold the light steady enough as Dad peered into the back of the TV.  He pulled suspected bad tubes from their sockets and we would drive over to the electronics store at the corner of Hicksville Road and Hempstead Turnpike to use their tube tester.  On our return, I would again hold the flashlight Dad inserted new tubes.  It was hard for a five-year old to hold the light steadily on the spot he wanted illuminated, and I still feel his rebuke for allowing the light to wander, but this was my introduction to technology, troubleshooting and teamwork.  He used a ‘cheater cord’ to power the high voltage section while the back cover off, so he could probe the chassis and check the picture, warning me to keep my fingers away so I wouldn’t get shocked.  Now I realize that he also needed that steady light to make sure he didn’t touch anything hot.

While we ate dinner at the kitchen table, Dad taught me multiplication as a prelude to me learning about square roots.  He would ask me for the definition: ‘ the square root of a number when multiplied by itself is the number.’  Then he would test me, first with the easy ones like 4 and 9, and then introduced irrational numbers:  ‘What is the square root of 3?’  I still remember he used the year George Washington was born as a reminder that the square root of 3 is 1.732.  We moved on to cube roots, and then to logarithms.

Mom was never a mathematician, and my brother Tom was too small, so these conversations were always special, as they were just between Dad and myself.

In later years he would talk about his work. When he went to work for Sperry Gyroscope, he brought home a gyro and taught me about precession. By the time Dad joined Grumman as Chief of Ground Test for the Lunar Excursion Module, my die was cast.
It was about that time, when I was 12 or 13 years old, that I first said out loud that I wanted to be an engineer, for a school assignment on careers. Of course, the seeds had been planted by my Dad almost from the day I was born, or at least when I was old enough to hold soldering iron.


And here I am, thanks to Dad.