All posts by Arthur Davenport

Why Engineer? Chapter 3 Part 3 — What Can You Only Learn on the Job?

Here’s something extra that they don’t teach in school. Some things are so complicated and lacking in answers that they require quite a bit of study before you reach a decision about how to treat them. And the odd thing is that your can study and study and eventually find that you have the answer you need, but all the things that you learned are useless. It’s as though you become smarter and smarter and finally come to the conclusion that all you learned was a waste of time — and then you really are smart.

Here’s an example. I once had to design heat exchangers that transferred heat from water to an agricultural waste slurry (a mix of solid particles and water). The viscosity of the slurry was unknown, indeed not predictable for every case. So, I started ordering articles and books from the company library on everything I could find on heat transfer involving slurries. Nothing fit my case. I worked at it over several months and learned a lot about things I would never use. And then it hit me. Pretty much every slurry in the studies I read absorbed heat better than water. So if I designed the heat exchangers as though they were dealing only with water, the result would be at least as good as I needed. So, all the knowledge I had gained was ultimately not applicable, but I now knew how to make the designs work. You climb the knowledge curve until you fall off. That’s when you finally get smart.

I’ve seen this happen several times in my career. Just beat around in the dark until you find that one little light switch.

Why Engineer? Chapter 3 Part 2 — What Can You Only Learn on the Job?

Learn to plan and estimate.  That is something you can only learn at your particular place of work.  Both the estimating and the planning depend heavily on the type of engineering you do, the products your company makes, the needs of your customers, and how your company organizes itself.  Few engineers plan their work or estimate their time or the time of others.  It is the bigger picture.  It sets priorities.  It tells you if what you are doing is really important.  Even if you do not supervise the work of others, it helps you fit your work into the flow of work needed from all parties involved.

Don’t trust everything you were taught in college.  Textbooks are an endless source of errors.  handbooks also contain errors.  And not just a few.  And not just small errors.  Many years ago, (OK, eons ago) when desktop computers were first coming into the work environment, I was asked to check on a particular handbook that was frequently used by our engineers.  A new edition had come out, and it was supposed to be set up especially for use with computers.  So, I called the professor whose name was listed as one of the authors (the prime author had died).  We had a nice chat.  He said the the publisher was working with a programmer to write the software that would allow the new edition’s formulations to be applied to desktop computers. He also mentioned that the revisions to the new edition had brought with it a number of errors, and he asked if I would like a copy of the errata.  I said yes, and in about a week I received a listing of over seventy significant errors, some by as much as a factor of Pi.  Subsequent to that, one of our engineers found three more large errors.  The book’s subject was stress analysis!  In fact, it was the premier book on the subject, used by practically anyone who did stress analysis.

I have other examples of source errors, but you get the picture.

Given the time to think about it more deeply, I am sure I could list any number of things that you only learn on the job.  In fact, if you aren’t constantly learning on the job, the job gets sort of boring.

Why Engineer? Chapter 3 Part 1 — What Can You Only Learn on the Job?

Beyond college is where the learning most pertinent to your career takes place.  So, here are some of the first things you will learn.

Completing a job on time is number one.  If you can do that without ruining the outcome, so much the better.

Speed is important.  It allows the company to promise a quicker final result.  It spends less company and customer money to get what the customer wants.  It commonly allows you to spend time refining your solutions, making them better, cheaper.

You will not generally be a speed demon the instant you start your first job.

Speed is not just dependent on you.  You will most likely have to coordinate your work with the work of others, the customer included.  That can, and often does, slow you down.  If the work is not adequately coordinated by either you or those above you, speed will not be the only thing that is sacrificed.  The quality of the work will suffer also.  Sorry, but that is the real world.  You are seldom the only one to determine the fate of your work.

Completing a job correctly may take more time at first, but may still be the least time burner.  A common phrase in the industry is, “We never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over.”  That sarcasm makes a point that is all too often ignored.  Now, you can fight against doing something wrong, but there are limits.  Every project has a program manager in one form or another.  As short sighted as it may be, in fighting to stay within budget and schedule, a program manager may not want to solve all of the design problems.  It may be the program manager’s judgment that certain aspects of the design are not all that important.  However, they may seem extremely important to you.  Seldom will you win that argument.

What if the design aspect that is being ignored is not just about money?  How if it is truly an issue of safety?  Well, some of the responsibility to get this fixed depends on you, and how well you can make your case.  The good news is that most engineering organizations have a path to follow in dealing with potential safety issues.  And they are far better at it than the evening news would like you to believe.

Get to know your organization.  Use it to get what you need for a good design.  In those rare instances where you think safety is being compromised, you may be surprised to find that the problem is not what you think it is.


Why Engineer — Chapter 2: What should you put in your head?

What does it take to become an engineer?  Being born helps.  Being born curious helps a lot.  Being born skeptical adds a chunk more.  Being born cheap – not so much.  Most engineering projects are expensive.  Get used to big money, just don’t get enamored with it.  If for no other reason, big projects fail because they cost too much, thus the emphasis on low cost designs.  Low cost designs use fewer resources and are thus usually easier on the environment overall.  And remember, your customer is part of your environment.

One thing that obviously costs quite a bit is education.  So, the question you must ask first is, how much is enough?  Surprisingly, it has been my observation that you don’t really need all that much, and even the quality of the education isn’t all that important – this from a guy who went to top engineering schools, and has a Masters degree, and had very good grades, but here comes the dirty little secret.

So how much is enough?  Earl didn’t go to college.  He never even finished high school, as you already know.  He worked his way into engineering by having an aptitude for it and by hard work and private study.  That sort of thing was more common back then.  It still happens in rare cases today, but employers want people with degrees.  And advanced degrees may even result in higher pay.  We’ll get into the subject of pay in another chapter.

Why do employers demand that you have a degree?  Because interviewing tells you very little about a person.  Grades are at least of some interest, and more objective.  Also, if a company does not have degreed engineers, they are less likely to land business that requires engineering work.

“Hi, my company is interested in engineering this project for you.  I have an exceptionally experienced staff of 25 very capable engineers, and the engineers in charge have college degrees.”


“Our staff of highly educated and experienced engineers, lead by Dr. Etcetera, can provide your project with advanced engineering designs well suited to make you project a success.”

Easy choice.

Face it, you are going to have to go to college, and your choices of jobs may be a little better with good grades.  Some companies have a list of acceptable schools.  And some even refer to that list if you have twenty or more years of experience, even though the schooling happened twenty or more years ago.

On the other hand, assuming you stay with a company for a number of years, where you went to school and what your grades were quickly drop out of the picture in the vast majority of  circumstances.  Once you have shown them how good you are, that becomes the key to your future, not your education.  Education may get you the job, but it does not do much for you once you are there.

Why is that?

Engineering, like other professions, demands things that you can’t learn in school.  And, it demands a lot less of what you learned in school than you think it will.  I am not advocating that you slack off in school.  Learning the language of engineering, learning to think hard before jumping to a conclusion, and finding your best engineering traits are all valuable to you.  However, if you aren’t the brightest in your class, you may still make out well in the profession.  I have seen at least one person, who never did any real engineering, and never really understood what he did for a living.  He wound up as a vice-president.

OK, he was an outlier in the data of career success, but I think you can find surveys that show that the incomes of engineers bear little or no correlation with college grades.  The point is, work hard, but don’t obsess about you future career.  College is very different from the real world.

In that regard, here is a statement that may surprise you.  Exceedingly few engineers ever use calculus again once they leave college.

And here is the bad news, a good working knowledge of statistics can be very helpful.

However, if you were to ask me what is the most important math skill you will need, I would tell you it is being able to formulate and solve word problems.  That’s good news for some, and bad news for others.  Your personal skill in this area will not necessarily ruin your career, it just means that you may or may not be a truly technically oriented engineer.  Know what your skills and limitations are and go where they lead you.

So, what else should I tell you?  Well, the things that fascinate you – hobbies, things you tend read about, etc. – are probably the best measures of the type of engineer you are going to be.  If you are not fascinated by machines and the things that they do, don’t bother with mechanical engineering.  You get the picture.  Always go with what interests you, what you are curious about.

That is not to say that a general knowledge of other aspects of engineering is of no use to you.  In the real world, most projects involve several engineering disciplines.  Knowing something about what the other person is doing is often a critical issue in making sure that you are not working at cross purposes.

If nothing in engineering really fascinates you, don’t choose it simply because you are good with math and science.  I had a college intern work for me one summer.  He was going to an expensive school to ultimately get his Ph.D. in engineering, and he was truly the possessor of a smart brain.  However, he did not seem to be the engineer type.  Smart, yes.  Practical, no.  As with most interns, you have to put them on some job that your own career can withstand, something relatively harmless (cynical, I know, but always wise).  We had a project that used an already designed and built commercial high pressure pump.  However, it needed some modification.  One of the things it needed was a passageway to get oil to one of the gears.  The job was not urgent.  Giving it to him would give him some practical experience without putting my own career in jeopardy.  I showed him the task at hand, and he accepted it with boyish enthusiasm.  He assured me he would have it finished by the afternoon.  I knew that wouldn’t happen, but I kept my mouth shut.  Problems involving machining tolerances and moving parts are usually hard to solve, yet they look easy to the untried eye.  I would have laughed at him, but he was a good kid, and it was not my intent to demean him.  Two weeks later, he had not figured it out.  He was very sorry, and I explained that it was a hard problem and that he shouldn’t worry about it.  I gave the job to a layout draftsman (who had no degree, but oodles of experience), and he solved it in a day.  Meanwhile the intern went off to get his Ph.D., and I hope to an ultimate goal of working in research, a place where he would really fit well.

Bottom line:  Keep in mind that some companies like certain schools, and then go to whatever school that meets your needs.  An expensive education isn’t the goal.  Get a degree in what interests you.  Work at it seriously.  Do your best and leave it at that.  It is not a race to be better than the other guy.  Most of it, you will never use!

Why Engineer? — Chapter 1: What is engineering?

Before I get started on the details, let me just say that I am going to indirectly ignore something that some engineers wind up doing:  operating complicated processes, plants, or facilities.  That does’t mean that what I am about to tell you doesn’t apply under those circumstances.   It does, but in ways that are less obvious.  Another similar category that I am indirectly ignoring is the engineering task of testing, which is also an important occupation of many engineers.  You might like it.  So, keep those job styles in mind if those types of engineering interest you.  What I am going to address directly is the engineering required in defining a product to be manufactured.


Do you like a good mystery?  Well here is one for you.  What is engineering?  Is it a subset of science?  Some think so.  In some cosmic way some may even think that engineering “works” for science.

Nearly everybody can tell you what science is, or at least what they picture it to be.  And no doubt everybody can tell you what mathematics is, at least the parts of it they have seen.  Yet only a few people can tell you what engineering is…and many of those who cannot are engineers!

You learn basic math and science in grade school, but not engineering.  And they only teach you “engineering science” in college.  You don’t really learn engineering anywhere except on the job.  And few there are who learn the lesson well, although they usually learn the job.  That’s why it’s so hard to find out what engineering is.

Let’s start with the dictionary.  And see if we can make any progress.

The first part of the second definition in Merriam-Webster on the Web is:

“the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people”

I like that, but it needs something.   Also, it excludes products that don’t use either energy or matter.   Wait a minute, there is a dictionary on my Mac, and part of it reads:

“skillfully or artfully arrange for (an event or situation) to occur”

That adds something of value, but we’re still missing the target.  Maybe we should look at the etymology of the word (That means the origins of the word.  I promised myself that I would not use strange or seldom used words – just so things would be clear.  I guess I lost it here.)  According to the “Online Etymology Dictionary” (, the origin of “engineer” and words related to it is:

engineer (n.)

early 14c., “constructor of military engines,” from O.Fr. engigneor, from L.L. ingeniare (see engine); general sense of “inventor, designer” is recorded from early 15c.; civil sense, in ref. to public works, is recorded from c.1600. Meaning “locomotive driver” is first attested 1832, Amer.Eng. The verb is attested from 1843; figurative sense of “arrange, contrive” is attested from 1864, originally in a political context. Related: Engineered. Engineering as a field of study is attested from 1792; an earlier word was engineership (1640s). Engineery was attempted in 1793, but it did not stick.”

It’s interesting to note that the term “train engineer” didn’t show up until 1832.  At any rate, as interesting as the etymology may be, it doesn’t add a lot more to the mix.  So, what are we missing?  Could it be something I have already told you?

“An engineer is someone who can do for one dollar what any fool can do for ten dollars.”

Aha!  You didn’t read the Preface.  Can’t blame you.  I usually don’t read prefaces either.

OK, I think we have enough.  Besides, this is getting boring.  Let’s see if I can come up with one good, simple sentence definition that  grabs the full essence of engineering.  Here is one possibility.

“Engineering:  the art of using the right combination of science, mathematics, or whatever to produce a simple, easy to manufacture, easy to inspect, easy to use, and easy to maintain design that is dirt cheap.”

All the way from art to dirt, with a “whatever” in the middle.  Can I convince you  of the truth of this definition?  Alright, here is an example.

Earl was a design engineer at Republic Aviation Corporation, affectionately referred to by the inmates as the “Repulsive Aggravation Corporation.”  When Republic was making their first afterburner[1], they faced a difficult problem – thermal distortion and the stresses that it produces.  Because of the high temperatures involved, this experimental project was administered by the thermodynamics[2] group.  Their first design was named after the manager of that group.  The first test of it was quite short.  In a matter of a few seconds the afterburner  rolled itself up in a ball and exited the engine like a missile.  Less than a second after that, the design was renamed after a lower level engineer.  Then the design was redone to include more parts to allow it to expand as the temperatures rapidly climbed.  Another ball, another missile.  After a final futile trial, the thermodynamics group threw up their hands, walked off the job, and threw the job over the wall to the design group.   At this point the design fell into Earl’s lap.  Now Earl was not a highly educated engineer, in fact, he never finished high school.  Still, he was no slouch.  If anyone knew what a non-thinking machine was actually thinking, Earl did.  His philosophy was that sometimes you had to defy Mother Nature.  So, in defiance of all that was considered rational, he bolted the afterburner in place as solidly as possible, with no allowance for expansion.  No surprise, it worked.

Now you can argue over the practicality of this approach, but there is always that cliché, “nothing succeeds like success.”  Was it art, science, mathematics, or whatever that produced the success?  Well, it wasn’t science or mathematics.  If you wanted that, you should have stuck with the thermodynamics group, but then you would not have had a success.  If this bothers you, go read the preface again.  You don’t find all the answers in a book when it comes to engineering.  Remember —

“An engineer is someone who can do for one dollar what any fool can do for ten dollars.”

If we had to wait for science and mathematics to solve all of our problems, some designs would never come to fruition.  Engineering costs money and time.  The money is not there forever, nor is the time.  Customers move on.  Everyone has their limits.  Whether the primary basis of the design is science, mathematics, or whatever, if it is not leading you down the path to the “one dollar” solution, it will not end in success.

By the way, Earl is not some theoretical guy.  He is not a made up example.  He was born in 1910 and died in 2004.  He was my father.  I will tell you more about him as the book goes on.

So if the new afterburner design was neither scientific nor mathematical, what was it?  This example seems like a case of “whatever”.  Earl had a hunch it would work.  After all, you don’t work with machines nearly all of your life and not get a feel for what works best, what is possible and what isn’t.

Maybe now is a good time to discuss the order of things in my definition of engineering.  When I wrote it, I put “art” first.  Science didn’t show up to be the supreme leader.  Science does not invent things.  However, there is a practical reason for using science.  It is repeatable.  It sets limits.  It reigns in impractical and impossible dreams.  It often brings sanity into the mix of ideas, but not always.

If you want a repeatable, predictable, explainable design you need two things:  a scientific basis that allows a paper analysis of the design, and an ability to test the results in properly simulated situations.  Generally speaking, it is always best to have a scientifically based design.  However, and we can talk about this later, science doesn’t know everything.

Unfortunately, neither science nor mathematics can always get there from here.  As in the example of the afterburner, you may have to depend on a good engineering hunch with no science to back it up – possibly a hunch that defies science.  I list hunches as a subset of “whatever”.

Ultimately though, engineering is an art, not an art whose sole purpose is to produce an aesthetic effect, but rather an art that finds the cheapest way to satisfy a set of requirements.  It is even used to determine the cheapest requirements in the first place.  So, I am going to leave art in first place.  It is the art of knowing which way to go to get to the finish line.

We will go into the details later, but this is probably enough for the first chapter.  You should at least have an idea now that engineering is not a subset of science, and that engineering a one dollar solution to a ten dollar problem is hard work.

[1] An afterburner is a device just ahead of the outlet of a jet engine where extra fuel is burned in order to produce extra thrust.  It is has been used on military airplanes, primarily fighters.  Most jet engines do not have after-burners.

[2] I assume you know what thermodynamics is, but just in case, thermodynamics is sort of the study of energy and how it affects matter – sort of.  I would give you a more exact definition, but it would take too long and not really matter anyway.

WHY ENGINEER? — A cautionary tale for those who aspire to do so. — INTRO

I started writing this several months ago.  I would hope to turn it into a book at some point.  Let me know your thoughts on the matter.

Although this is non-fiction, I can’t say that all will agree with me about the truth of the matters discussed.  It is based upon my 50+ years of experience.  I would hope that counts  for something.

Here is the first part.  I’ll try to add to it each week, but no promises.


This work is dedicated to Earl, a good guy and remarkable engineer.


Why would anyone want to be an engineer?  Why would you want to be in a profession that is one of the least understood by the public, your family, and oddly enough, your fellow engineers?

You can’t answer these questions if you don’t know what engineering is all about.  So, I would like to help you.  And I am not going to do that by giving you advice.  The decision to become an engineer is completely up to you.  I’m simply going to tell you what it takes to be one and what it’s like to be one.  If this book influences your decision, if it causes some of you to abandon the idea and others to become an engineer, then this book has done all it can.

This book is not about the impact of engineering on civilization.  It is about the impact of engineering on you.   And I don’t know what that impact will be.  Your view of the impact is your view of the impact.

So, who am I to lead you down this path?  If I said there was a PhD after my name, most people would be satisfied.  Well, there isn’t.  If I said I was the engineering director for some large engineering firm, that might satisfy some, but I’m not.   I am an engineer – period.  If you want to know more, I am an aerospace engineer.  I have an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and a masters degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  I am a licensed professional engineer in the State of Washington.  I started as an engineer in 1962, and at this writing, I am still a working engineer.

So, why write this book?  As long as I can remember there has always been a huge shortage of engineers in the United States, probably the whole world – but quantity isn’t everything.  I’m more interested in quality.  And I don’t think there’s much emphasis on it.  Being a brilliant student does not automatically make you a good engineer.  Answering the question as to why you are going into engineering by saying that you are good at math and science is not much of an answer when you have no clue as to what engineering is all about.  So let’s talk a little philosophy.

I once had a professor of industrial engineering who didn’t  fit the usual professorial mold.  He was what some would call “street smart.”  He probably made more money as a consultant than he did as a professor, and I would guess enjoyed it more also.  He had a simple definition for the word “engineer”.

“An engineer is someone who can do for one dollar what any fool can do for ten dollars.”

If you think you can fill that bill and would enjoy doing so, maybe you should go into engineering.  If you think the definition ignores the loftier goals of engineering, then beware! 


I don’t know, maybe I should put the introduction before the preface.  What do you think?  There’s a set of rules here, but I’m not sure what they are.  If it bothers you, just read the introduction first.  However, I don’t recommend that procedure.  This is where I tell you what is in the book in greater detail.  I wrote the preface to introduce the subject.  Here is where I introduce the book.

So, what would you like to know?  I don’t really expect an answer, but it is something you should consider.  I’ll consider it also if you send it to me.

I see nine topics of interest when it comes to deciding about becoming an engineer:

  1.  What is engineering?
  2. What should you put in your head?
  3. What can you only learn on the job?
  4. What is the difference between research, development, and production?
  5. What influences decisions?
  6. How do ethics fit in?
  7. What do I need to know about office politics?
  8. How much does engineering pay?
  9. Some rules of thumb!

I think I’ll break the book up into nine chapters and cover each topic separately.

So, that’s what is going to be in the book.  Now let’s see how many pages it turns out to be.

Do You Enjoy Commuting?

I only write poems that rhyme, so literary critics can tune out at this point.

As I got older, and the commuting got longer — two hours each way to Boeing — I started using “beaters”, old cars with little life left in them, but cheap.  I have had two used Chevy Metro’s in series, both red.  They were peppy little cars, easy to park, but they were no match for a Corvette.  The following story is actually quite true, although I never followed up and actually talked to the Corvette owner.  The whole idea came to me right there in the parking lot as it happened. Hope you enjoy the poem.

My Whole Life Flashed Before My Eyes

 I drive a Geo Metro

It’s a beauty, and it’s red

It uses very little gas

It’s my second, first one’s dead

 You might ask how I got it

I’ll tell you, but sit down

It all started many years ago

Now try hard not to frown

 I got myself a big degree

In engineering and so it went

I spent time in the Air Force

As an officer and a gent

 While I worked for Uncle Sam

I bought my first used car

And in those days a tank of gas

Didn’t get me very far

 It was a 1960 dual quad Vette

All white with red inside

To that I added a pretty wife

And then a father’s pride

 All too soon the Vette was gone

A Buick in its place

But life was lookin’ up, my friend

My career picked up its pace

 I sent men to the moon

And  a lota stuff like that

I got my masters at RPI

And then more kids I gat

 My car by now was a Maverick

It got 21 on the road

The years went by and now I drive

This cramped and cheap red toad

 So there I was this mornin’

Looking for a place to park

When I spied a spot that looked real great

And I went for it like a shark

 But as I closed upon my prey

A sleek red bullet passed

A modern version of my old Vette

And I was all aghast

 I didn’t mind the spot he got

He got it fair and square

What I got was a fiendish thought

Could  I do it, would I dare?

 Well, I decided that I’d do it

And I headed off his way

I said, “I don’t mean to worry you son,

But you’ll be drivin’ that someday!”

 Art Davenport, June 2002

The Three Way Duel

If you were to have a gun battle with two other people, would you want to be the most skilled? As it turns out, this is a problem of strategy and probability. And here are the rules:

1 – Each of the three participants get to fire in turn as determined by flipping a coin at the beginning of the match.
2 – Each participant gets to choose who they shoot.
3 – Each participant gets only one shot per turn.

Now here is the tricky part. Let’s assume that the participants have the following skill levels:

Person A hits the target 100% of the time.
Person B hits the target 75% of the time.
Person C hits the target 25% of the time.

Assuming all three choose their best strategy for survival, who has the best chance of being the last person standing?

I won’t take up your time going through the math. The answer is that Person C has the best chance of survival, roughly twice the chance of survival of either of the other two. The math logic that leads to that conclusion is a bit tangled, but the underlying idea is that the person most likely not to be shot at is Person C.

So, what about my first question. Which person would you like to be at the start? The issue is now more than just a math problem. It’s your life. But wait! There’s more! Let’s make the situation even worse. Let’s allow you to choose your skill level in the following way. We will provide three guns, one that fires 100% of the time, one that fires 75% of the time, and one that fires 50% of the time. You then draw straws to see who gets to choose the first gun, who gets to chose the second gun, and who gets the gun that is left. BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! Your mother is watching you make your selection. What was a dry problem of mathematics is now a suspenseful novel!

NOTE: This type of duel is indeed called a truel. Various forms and rules have been studied. If you need to look into the matter, I would suggest that you start with the entry about it in For myself, I would rather worry about what my mother would have told me to do.

How Can You be Sure?

A statistician once said to me, “Being a statistician means never having to say you’re sure!”  I don’t know if he is the author of that sentence, but it sure sums up the subject.

I, like many of you, never liked the statistics course I took in college.  It’s like chemistry, you never understand it until you actually have to work with it.

Over the years, I have run into a few simple instances where statistical variation was quite important.  So, leaving out words like “normal”, “standard deviation”, “mean”, “mode”, etc., here’s the situation.

You have designed and built something that has to perform within a given tolerance.  However, you can’t sell it to a customer without some reassurance that it meets that standard.  So, you test it.  And right away, you’re in trouble.  The means of measuring the unit’s performance also lacks accuracy.  And, if you were a typical person, you ignore that nagging doubt and proceed.

But wait!  How if you had to show that the temperature drop through a cooling unit was no less than 2 degrees F, and the means of measuring that is only accurate to plus or minus one and one half degrees F?

For now, let’s ignore the nitpicking details and take the simple minded view.

OK, so it looks like this.  If a particular cooler actually only cools the fluid by one half of a degree F, and your measuring instrument reads high by one and one half degrees F, you would think that the cooler was working just fine, and you would sell it to a customer — a customer who would soon be back pounding on your door wanting a full refund plus damages.

Or, it could be that the cooler cools the fluid by more than necessary, say two and one half degrees F, but your test instrument says that it only cooled the fluid one degree F.  So, you throw the cooler into the dumpster, even though it is perfectly good.

Both of these possibilities are going to cost you money, or something much worse.  On the other hand, your temperature measuring device was probably cheap, if that makes you feel better.

Although there are a number of technical issues left out of the story, things like this do happen in practice.  I have been involved in at least two cases like this.  Sad to say, I lost the argument both times.

As someone once said, “We never have the time to do it right, but we always have the time to do it over.”

Well, hold onto your hat, there are more stories on statistics in the queue.  Next time, The Three Way Duel.  (I can’t call it a Truel, can I?)

Comet West – 1976

C West 002

Comet West

The picture above was taken in May of 1976 using Kodachrome color film.  I have provided it here in black and white, obviously.  I took the picture with a 50 mm lens on a single lens reflex camera.  It was somewhere around four in the morning as I remember.  The picture, as most pictures of Comet West, does not do justice to what we saw — not even close.

The “we” I am referring to is an old friend from college, Mike Stupinski (Hi, Mike!) and I.  Mike also wound up working for Hamilton Standard, as I did.  We knew that the comet was supposed to be pretty spectacular, and Mike stayed over at my house the night before so we could observe it together.  At the time, Wendy and I, plus the children, lived in a modest house in the hills of East Hartland, CT.  To the east we had an expansive view of the Connecticut River valley, ideal for observing the eastern sky.

The view of Comet West that morning was indeed spectacular, much more so than either Mike or I had expected.  The sun was not yet up, but there was some light in the sky.  We should have gotten up earlier.  At the time, I owned an eight inch diameter telescope, but it couldn’t begin to show the expansive image as well as a simple camera could,and certainly not as well as seen by the naked eye.  Comet West literally filled the northeast sky.  The tail was much wider and longer when seen by our unaided eyes only — no camera, no binoculars, no telescope.

Unfortunately, Comet West broke apart during its passage.  So, it will probably never be the same again.

A Shark on the Moon

The spacesuit used for the Apollo missions was made by International Latex Corp. However, some of the earlier development of the suit for Apollo was done by my former employer, Hamilton Standard. Many design problems were very difficult to overcome. On the low end of the design spectrum, the Apollo spacesuit had a seemingly very small problem. It was difficult to grasp objects with the gloves of the suit. It was also reported that it was difficult to let things go once they are gripped.  The gripping problem needed a solution.

What the gloves were missing was fingerprints.  I don’t know who came up with the idea, but someone pointed out that real sharkskin had a knapp to it.  It would grip in one direction and not in the other. That would have been ideal for fingerprints, if only we could have found sharkskin in the Yellow Pages.

So one day, a Hamilton Standard purchasing agent called up two brothers who were shark hunters in Mobile, Alabama. I knew the purchasing agent, but have forgotten his name. So, we’ll call him Frank, and we’ll call the shark hunter who answers the phone, Bob. The phone call, as it was told to me, went something like the following, including the last line:

Frank: Hello, I’m a purchasing agent for the Hamilton Standard Division of United Aircraft Corporation in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. I would like to purchase some sharkskin.

On hearing this, Bob almost hung up, but instead he went along with it.

Bob: What do want sharkskin for?

Frank: We need it to use as fingerprints on the gloves of the astronauts that are going to the Moon.

The temptation to hang up became even stronger.

Bob: How much do you need?

Frank: Two square feet.

At this point there as a long pause. Finally, Bob replied.

Bob: You know, sharks don’t come square!


‘Tis true!  Sharkskin was used.  If you want some verification, go to:

I would like to include a picture, but so far, I have not found one to show you.

Age and Wrinkles

I should tell you about my dad. He was born in 1910 and grew up in Hammonton, NJ.  He was not an easy child.  He quit high school when he turned sixteen.  He told me that he didn’t think his teachers knew anything and later found out that he was right.  Whether that was his sense of humor that prompted him to say that or not, we’ll have to leave to conjecture.  He died in 2004.

Upon leaving school, his parents threw him out.  He worked at picking crops, selling refrigerators, and who knows what else, and when the Stock Market crashed during The Great Depression, he joined the Army.  He was always an avid reader, which is probably what shaped his ultimate career.  While in the Army, he studied blueprint reading.  And while I don’t have his complete work history, I know that he eventually wound up working at Hall Aluminum as a sheet metal worker after the Army.  Along the way, he picked up an airplane mechanics license.  After Hall Aluminum, he worked for Sikorsky Helicopters, and it was there that he got his biggest break.  He was laid off.

Now that sounds bad, but he had impressed an engineer with whom he interacted when there was a need for sheet metal work for a special job.  He ultimately wound up solving a difficult manufacturing problem for the engineer, and in turn, the engineer gave him a letter of recommendation that said that my dad worked as a draftsman, which he didn’t, although he was quite good at it.

That got my dad a job with Republic Aviation at the time of the start of WWII.  There he worked hard, and studied on his own.  He designed the belly fuel tank for the P-47, and eventually went on to design other fuel systems for Republic’s jet fighters.  His biggest job was being in charge of sixty engineers and draftsmen designing the engine installation and fuel system for the F-105.

So, for a high school drop out, he did pretty well.

Now for the wrinkles.  While working at Hamilton Standard, I had a small group of engineers designing various parts of the Shuttle ECS (Environmental Control System).  Here again, water was a major cooling medium.  The Shuttle had what was called a spray boiler.  It was a chamber open to the vacuum of space in which water was sprayed on the inside wall.  The water froze, or at least cooled, because of the low pressure.  The wall was then used as a heat sink for heat generated elsewhere in the Shuttle.  Well, that meant that we had to have a tank of water available.   This all made sense except for one thing.  The NASA specification said that the tank had to withstand temperatures all the way down to twenty five degrees Fahrenheit while the Shuttle was not flying.  That was because temperatures in Florida sometimes dip below freezing.

So, I was stuck with this problem, and no doubt you are already thinking of ways to get around it, use a heater, insulate it, drain it when temperatures drop, who knows what else.  What we needed however, was a simple, cost-effective, and light weight solution.  At that point, I didn’t have a clue, nor did I have much time to come up with an answer.  So, I did what any other red blooded American male would do, I called my parent for help.  At the time, my dad was still working for Republic.

When I got him on the phone and explained the problem, he started to talk about rain gutters and downspouts.  He asked me what shape the downspouts were.  I said they were rectangular with wrinkles in them.  So he asked me if I knew why.  To which I said no.  And he said that they were made that way so that when they froze in the winter, they could expand with the ice and not break…DUH!

And that is how the water tank in the Shuttle got its  wrinkles.

By the way, in case you are worried, the Shuttle did not launch with ice in that tank.  Ahhh, the warm Florida sun!

Water on the Moon?

One of the first things I learned about going to a waterless Moon, was that you had to know a lot about water to get there and back.  And here are some of the most important characteristics of water.

  1. It holds a lot of heat.  So, it makes a good medium for removing body heat from astronauts that are isolated inside a spacesuit.
  2. Like many other materials, it evaporates even when it is frozen.  That process is called “sublimation”.
  3. Gases dissolve in water.  That is a big problem, and I will soon tell you why.

Your body is always getting rid of heat.  If it didn’t, you would literally die.  On the earth, you can get rid of that heat by both conducting heat away to air that is colder than your body and by sweating, cooling by evaporation.  However, there is no air on the Moon, and no place in a spacesuit to collect sweat.  So, the first job of a spacesuit is to keep you cool, especially when you are working hard.

Inside the Apollo Back Pack worn by the astronauts on the Moon, there is a device called a heat exchanger that cools both the air that the astronaut breathes and water that has been running around the body in small tubes.  That heat exchanger is called the “Sublimator”.  It’s original name was the “Porous Plate Water Boiler.”  NASA thought that was too big for a name and not as catchy as they liked.  So, it was changed to “Sublimator”.  However, in fact the Sublimator is more a water boiler than a sublimator.  Yes, there is some amount of sublimation going on inside, but most of the heat is boiled off into the vacuum of space at a boiling temperature of around 32 degrees F.  Lest we get lost, I’ll stop the explanation here.

And then came the first problem.  I had not been out of the Air force and working for Hamilton Standard very long when I was asked to finish writing a specification for the Water Reservoir that provided the water boiled off by the Sublimator.  Well, you don’t want air in the Reservoir because it tends to mess up the action of the Sublimator.  In order to avoid that, the specification said that you had to evacuate the Reservoir before backfilling it with water.  In fact, the specification wanted you to evacuate it to the point of what is called a “hard” vacuum.  And I thought, as a joke really, that there was more air dissolved in the water than was left in the Reservoir after evacuating it.

So, off I went to the Hamilton library, and I looked up the amount of air dissolved in water at sea level conditions.  Much to my surprise, it was a lot of air.  And when you drop the pressure in the Reservoir as you do when using it on the surface of the Moon, it all comes out of solution, just like opening a hot bottle of soda.  That is bad, very bad — but it gets worse.

And in my next BLOG, I will tell you why.  You will learn about how things were done in space, and you will learn a little about office politics.

Water on the Moon? Part 2

There is a sarcastic explanation of the stages of a project which ends in the phrase, “Awards and accolades for the non-participants.” I don’t know its origins, but there is some truth to it.  Soon after discovering this problem of air being dissolved in the reservoir water, my boss told me to write a memo explaining the issue.  I did that, and several weeks later, an engineer from another group wrote an essentially identical memo, but made it thicker by adding copies of technical tables from my library source.  He had nothing to do with the discovery of the problem, but his boss wanted their group to get full credit for having done something they actually did not do.  You would think that someone above them would have the good sense to stop that sort of nonsense.  Unfortunately…

The problem with dissolved gas in the reservoir water was that it kept the water pressure at the Sublimator from dropping to an acceptable level, thus causing water to go through the Sublimator into space without actually boiling.  That prevented the Sublimator from doing its cooling job.

Anyway, it turned out that the water being used to fill the Back Pack Reservoir was indeed saturated with dissolved nitrogen at about three times the atmospheric pressure on the Earth at sea level.  This was done to solve a problem with the source of the water, the water tanks in the Lunar Excursion Module, or LEM as we called it.  No one had considered what it meant to the Back Pack.  And as problems go, it was a show stopper.  However, the problem was solved by placing an orifice in the tubing between the Reservoir and the Sublimator, a pretty simple change.  That lowered the pressure at the Sublimator to an acceptable level.  I am sorry to say that I don’t remember who thought of it.  It wasn’t me, and it certainly was not the guy who wrote the bogus memo. — END