Category Archives: 2 – Engineering Science and General Blog

Is it spelling, typos, or a new language?

I just spent an hour looking over past comments I received on various posts.  Each one contained an inexplicable word.  I asked the person who wrote the comment to explain the seemingly inexplicable.  I hope I don’t embarrass anyone, especially me.  Maybe they were just typos.  I didn’t ask about the ones that I thought were actual typos.  The people I did ask can refuse to answer.  That would be fine.  I just had to ask.

Having written four novels and numerous technical reports and memos, I know that editing out mistakes is a lot of work.  I once changed the sex of a character in one of my books without noticing.  A friend caught it before I published it, thank goodness.  You may wonder how I could do such a thing, loosing track of a charater’s sex.  It was easy.  The character was a dog…I mean an actual dog, one with fur, fangs, claws, and all that.

And now I notice a typo in one of my attempts to get a “word” explained!

Gravity vs. Diffusion –The Grave Case of Diffusion Confusion

There is always something left open in my mind.  I hope it’s not a real hole.

I don’t remember what made me think of this lately, but I’m still wondering about something.  In a gas mixture, who wins out:  gravity or diffusion?  Or possibly, do they each have their portion of the win?

Hey!  I’m not a physicist.  I’m an engineer.  This is actually a real problem.  Somebody must have the answer, or do they?

Over thirty years ago, this question actually showed up in my work as an engineer.  I had a clever answer for it, but now I would like as real an answer as possible — just out of curiosity.

Way back many years ago, I was working on the design of an oxygen generator that is now on U.S. submarines.  It was a technology that we bought in the middle of its development from another company.  It involved water electrolysis to produce separate streams of the two components of water:  oxygen and hydrogen.  In that sense it was nothing new, but the company that was developing it for the Navy seemed in the Navy’s eyes to be a bit slow in bringing the design out of the development stage and into production.

The new generator was a replacement for the previous design then in use on submarines, one developed by another company.  (By the way, I’m leaving out company names because there is no bad guy in this story.  And, it is not relevant in this context anyway.)

The new design operated at 3,000 psi using distilled water with no electrolyte.  And then it was noticed that there was another market for commercial low pressure generators as well, separate from the Navy contract.  And that is where the problem arose.  In the design of the Navy generator, I had taken great care to make sure the design was safe to use.  I didn’t want the thing to blow up.  Why would it do that?  Well, if you allow oxygen gas and hydrogen gas to somehow contact each other (after they have been separated) at the design pressure of 3,000 psi, there would be an explosion…no flame or spark required.  That danger decreases with decreasing pressure, but it is never far away.  In the case of the Navy generator, one of the design requirements that I insisted on was that the worst possible explosion had to be contained within the equipment itself.

And then one day, sometime after I was through with the design of the Navy unit, a different design group had developed a low pressure generator for a commercial purpose.  Unfortunately, there had been a slight lack of safety concerns in that design.  The design allowed hydrogen and oxygen to contact each other.  First, a single failure of a single barrier allowed the contact, and second, a catalyst was used in the system and had spread pretty much everywhere.  The presence of the catalyst caused the mixture to explode even though the pressure was only slightly above normal atmospheric pressure.  The third flaw was that the commercial system was not built to withstand an internal explosion.

I don’t remember how I got involved in the investigation process, but there I was.  One side of the argument was that leakage of hydrogen  was OK once we solved the catalyst problem, which was doable.  The problem that still existed was the possibility of leakage of hydrogen out of the system into the room.  To some, that didn’t seem to be a problem worth talking about.  After all, hydrogen is lighter than air, and it would simple rise to the top of the room and slowly dissipate given enough time.

And thus the question arises, is gravity the main player here, or is it diffusion?  Obviously, most of the people in the room thought that gravity would overcome diffusion, and the hydrogen would rise to the highest point in the room and not be a hazard…but would it really?  (For now we’ll ignore the question of the hazard it might be  at ceiling level.)

So, just considering the question of gravity overcoming diffusion, I wasn’t about to pin the safety of the system on something we obviously did not understand, but how to convince others?

Several of the attendees were smokers (people smoked in the office back then).  So I proposed that we run an experiment.  Everyone was to put out their cigarettes, pipes, and cigars.  I would go get a bottle of hydrogen.  I would open it on the table in front of us and let some out (avoiding suffocation with too much hydrogen).  We would then give the hydrogen time to collect at the ceiling level.  AND FINALLY, light’m up boys!  If they were willing to do that, I would go along with their opinions on the safety of hydrogen leaks.

Wisely, they caved.

And here I sit many years later, still wondering who won:  gravity, diffusion, or just a clever argument that assumed that in then end, nothing is what it looks like.  I’ve done a little searching on the web, but to no avail.  It seems to be that there is a consensus that in a 1 g gravitional field, gravity loses big time.

The right answer appears to be more like:  Why risk it?   Put your money, or in this case “your life,” where your mouth is!

And here is the joke of it all — I mean you have to ask —

So, does hot air really rise?

Spectre (Hope this isn’t the “new” James Bond.)

Saw this last week.  I’ve pretty much always liked James Bond, both as a movie and a movie character…not much in this case.  It appears that “politically correct” has finally taken over.  In addition, in the normal attempt to show Bond as vulnerable but triumphant, vulnerable seems to have just about found its game.  I know that Daniel Craig is no comic, but some of the old Bond humor would be a relief.  Oh, also get a new writer…or better yet, an old one.

And since when does M get to be a hero?

And whatever happened to Q?  Another great character gets a brain wash!

Come on people!  You can do better than this!  “If it ain’t broke…don’t fix it.”

Metal Coil Spring Failure for the General Public

How many times do you hear that a coil spring or set of coil springs have gotten old and soft?  Sounds reasonable, but is it?

The real truth is that the stiffness of coil springs is governed by their geometry, the type of metal that are made from, and the state of that material as it originally was when it first came out of the box.  It is not affected by use/age.  I’ll tell you why in just a minute.

There are many ways a coil spring can fail.  Here are some:

It can corrode (rust) and thus lose material and/or become cracked,

It can be overloaded beyond what it was designed to take,

It can wear out from constant rubbing on something,

It can lose its characteristics or even fail by being exposed to  temperatures higher than it was designed to meet,

It may take a “set” early in its use (essentially change its geometry) if that isn’t taken care of before it is installed for use, and there are ways to prevent that,

It can buckle (not remain straight) if it is not designed correctly for its application.  We had that happen on a large spring used in the Apollo Back Pack and had to redesign the spring.  Fortunately, we found the problem long before anyone had to use the Back Pack.

It can develop a “fatigue” crack from being flexed a significantly number of times beyond its planned life.  Oddly enough, this will not necessarily change its operation or stiffness.  We had a spring once that was cracked half way through, and it did not affect the stiffness of the spring at all.  I could explain why, but it’s complicated for a non-engineer (no insult meant).

If the ends are not ground flat properly, or not ground flat at all, the life of the spring before actual failure will be reduced.

The primary characteristic of interest that determines a spring’s stiffness once its geometry has been settled is a thing inherent in the actual material, its “modulus”.  The modulus is sort of a spring stiffness that is a natural characteristic of the material itself.  It can be affected by temperature, but not by very much in metals.  And, except for temperature, it stays the same regardless of the list I gave above.

So, unless a spring actually falls into one or more pieces, it does not get soft in use.

So, the next time someone tells you that the coils springs on your car have gotten soft, just laugh.

Now, if you want to make a spring out of a non-metal, you have my sympathy.

San Andreas

I watched this yesterday on disk with my wife, son, and his oldest son.  As disaster movies go, it was up there with the best.  Pretty well cast.  Pretty well written.  Pretty well directed.  No complaints about the acting, good job.  Plenty of action from start to finish.  Excellent special affects.

I’m not a geologist, but even as an engineer, I could see some faults in it here and there (a little play on words can’t hurt).  However, for the type of movie it is, those things don’t matter much.

If you like disaster movies, watch it if you missed it in theaters.

However, given the now often up close news coverage of real disasters, it takes a lot to match reality.  I happened to be having trouble sleeping at the time of the Japanese psunami.  I found it live on TV by accident.  It wasn’t the visual spectacle of fiction, but the realization of the actual reality dwarfs even the most spectacular disaster movie!


A Few Good Men (On ROKU)

One of my favorites.  We only had a VHS copy, so ROKU came in handy so that we could see it in HD.  Watched it again a week ago.  Been awhile.

I’m not a lawyer, so the realistic level of what happens is not mine to judge.  However the story is strong right up to the climax.  It is military.  So, if you aren’t into military films, then you may not like it.  However, it is not about war.  It is a legal battle.

Writing, acting, directing, and casting are all exellent!  I highly recommend it!

The Martian

It was Good enough to keep my interest, but it was definitely science fiction.  The list of things that wouldn’t happen in a real Mars encounter is long.  The hype about the movie far outweighs its performance.  The acting is fine, but the writing and directing needs work in my opinion.  Hey, I worked on the design of the Apollo Backpack and the Shuttle Environmental Control System, I can afford to be critical.

When you think about it, the movie makes NASA management look like political hacks.  The one lowly worker who thought up the right way to perform the rescue got no thanks or recognition.  That was by far the closest thing to what happens in real life in the whole movie.

Oh well, most people will like The Martian.  It’s OK, just not as good as it could have been.

By the way Hollywood, when you burn hydrogen and oxygen, the flame has no color!  That’s one of the reasons why hydrogen is so dangerous.

Percent Signs

Teach people to calculate percentage, and they think they have become statistical analysts!

So, in today’s paper there is an article about how warm our fall will be because of El Niño.  It further states that history in the Northwest has shown that the presence of warm Pacific water causes our weather to be warmer.

OK, so what?

Well, the next sentence says that because of all this, NOAA says there is a 49% chance that our fall will be warmer than usual.

Excuse me!  Doesn’t that mean that there is a 51% chance it will be colder?  After all there is a zero percent chance that it will be exactly the same.

What brain dead reporter writes this stuff?


Stupid Smarts in More Ways than One

Teach the percent sign, and what have you wrought?

A “statistician” is born who knows not but nought!

They think that they know when they don’t have a thought!

Whatever they write, they think you have bought!

They can’t even tell when their lies have been caught!

And this is why wars with the truth have been fought!

Percentage is a thing that is not to be taught!

The Hole In The Wall Gang


Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, move over! This not about you two.  It is a mystery, one that started taking shape in 1839.  Even today, not all agree on the solution.

I’ll try to keep this as non-technical as I can, but it may be somewhat daunting for the casual reader. If you don’t find it interesting, I won’t take offense.


This is about the flow of fluid through a hole in a wall, in other words, an orifice.


I was going to say, Since The Dawn of Man, but I don’t think we have to go back that far.

1839 — Adhémar Jean Claude Barré de Saint-Venant (now there’s a name for you) and Pierre Laurent Wantzel developed the first correct compressible flow equations for ideal flow in a nozzle.  Tests seemed to show that there is a limit to the flow that can get through the hole.  If you divide the upstream pressure into the downstream pressure, the resulting pressure ratio appeared to not produce higher flow once that ratio reached 0.4.

1885 — Osborne Reynolds independently derived the same equations and theorized (no test data as far as I know) that the flow is limited by the speed of sound through the orifice.

1916 — Lord Rayleigh (born John William Strutt) figured that things were not resolved and asked a guy named Hartshorn to dig into it.  Sorry to say that there are so many Hartshorns around, I’m not sure which one he is.  I’ll keep looking for him.  At any rate, his tests showed that there was no choke point at the sonic pressure ratio.  In fact he saw increased flow all the way down  to a pressure ratio of 0.2.

1926 — Stanton pointed out that the orifice vena contracta changes in size, depending on the pressure ratio, and he had photos to prove it.

[I know, you’re wondering what a “vena contracta” is.  Without too many words, the flow coming out of an orifice is “pinched” to a size that is smaller than the actual hole size, and the issue is that the amount of pinching is affected by the pressure ratio — the smaller the pressure ratio, the bigger the flow area of the vena contracta.]

1945 — Chester Smith published an article that set things back.  He claimed that the flow was limited by the actual hole size and the speed of sound, thus ignoring the change in the size of the vena contracta.  And you can’t even criticize his work because he says it wasn’t his!  He says he learned this from V. Petrovsky, but you can’t even question Mr. Petrovsky because he had died prior to the publishing of the article.

This is the so-called “choked flow” theory of orifice flow.  It shows up in some textbooks.  It’s what they taught me in college.  And, amazingly enough, it is still in use, even though it has been thoroughly disproved since 1926.  Check the Internet.  You’ll still find people who believe it.

1949 — Perry, and back to sanity.  His Masters Thesis shows test data for small diameter ratios (orifice diameter divided by pipe diameter).  Chester Smith missed the mark.

1951 — Grace and Lapple developed an equation covering flow for small diameter ratios.

1951 — Cunningham expanded the known data to a wide range of orifice diameter ratios.


Now you can sit around and argue over this, but the fact remains that there is a lot of good test data that shows the idea of “choked flow” in orifices is simply wrong.  No one is saying that the speed of sound is not involved, but what the data shows is that the size of the vena contracta varies with pressure ratio.  It’s no “CHOKE”!

Thacher’s Slide Rule — Thirty Feet of Numbers!

The slide rule shown on my home page is mine.  It is true that I broke it by not packing it properly for shipment in its later years, but I will never throw it away.  Here is a picture showing the crack.


It was my first slide rule.  It cost around $20, which was a fortune to me as a starting freshman at Stevens Institute of Technology, but for a kid who had a predilection  for numbers, it was a marvel.  And it went on to help design a lot of great stuff, not the least of which was the Apollo Back Pack.  It couldn’t spit out 50 decimal places, only three at most.

But there was Thacher.  My slide rule is only a foot long.  His was 30 feet long — no way to hang that from your belt!  And now I own one.  Of course it’s too late.  I’m retired.


It has a slide as you can see and many progressive scales that make up the thirty feet.  I won’t bore you with the details of its history.  You can find out all you want by looking on web, for instance:

The one thing my original slide rule and the Thacher I own have in common.  They were made by the same manufacturer, K&E.



Before I go on talking about the pitfalls of dealing with data, I thought I would say a few things about writing  for this web site.   The other day I was thinking that I should really name it “My Own Two Cents dot com.”  Writing is a egocentric act in many ways.  If you keep it to yourself, I guess it falls out of that category, but doing what I do here does at times seem rather self-centered.  So, I looked up in a search engine.  I figured someone must have a site by that name.  Turns out that there is no such web site…but I could buy the name for $2495.00.  Now that was funny, to me anyway.  TWO CENTS would only cost me $2495.00!

So, why do I write these blogs for all to see?

I write because I enjoy the flow of what passes for logic in my brain down onto paper, the written word.  We all spend our lives wondering why most people don’t truly appreciate our thoughts about things, and the older we get, the longer the list becomes.  This blog and my novels are my list.  The blog is free and the novels are cheap.  Read what you want.  Then make your own list.


So, back to talking about my logic and how it applies to data.  Feel free to comment.  I refuse to roast criticism, although I may comment back politely.  Don’t worry about embarrassment, The Novel Slide Rule doesn’t get many visitors, but the visitor list does cover a very wide range of countries.  That also surprises me.


“Watch Out!”

If someone says that to you, are your senses heightened?  Now let’s say someone asks you to collect observations for them.  Are you liable to see things that you never noticed before?  There lies the problem.

A number of years ago a government agency that we all know was brought in to investigate a particular set of employee complaints about working conditions that seemed to be causing illnesses in the employees.  It was in an area that was of interest to me, so I read their report.  The report contained one rather silly mathematical mistake, but we can forget that for now.  It is what the report failed to contain that is of interest.

The level of complaints included those recorded both before and after the agency was on site working with the employees.  However, the report never presented the data as a function of time.  And as a function of time, it looked like this.  Before the agency came on site, the level was five complaints per month.  While the agency was on site, the level was ten complaints per month.  After the agency left, the level immediately dropped back to five complaints per month.

Now you can read anything you like into that, but be careful.  It is just data without explanation.  To its credit, the agency did a thorough check of possible causes, and no cause was ever found for any of the complaints.  Guessing is not an option at this point.

I have witnessed similar situations for other types of reported observations at least twice.  In both cases, the level of observations slowly returned to “normal” in about a year.  The observers in question were aware at the beginning that the levels were out of proportion to “normal”.  How did they know this?  Probably this can be blamed on two causes:  word of mouth rumors and the fact that they were asked to specifically look for the problem.  Eventually the excitement of the problem grew dim in the minds of the observers, and it disappeared.

I’m sure the world of psychology has already noticed this effect and written extensively about it, but I’m afraid that general data taking by public or private observations doesn’t always keep that in mind, maybe seldom keeps that in mind.

So, be careful how data is gathered by observation.   Try hard to keep the human mind out of the picture.

Just remember how many times you said in anger to a friend or loved one, “You always do that!”  No they don’t!  You didn’t really keep track.  You just think you did.  Prove it with objective data, or better yet, cut them some slack!


Extrapolation:  The riskiest form of prediction.

It has been said that when you are afraid that people will think you are a fool, don’t open your mouth and remove all doubt.  That is precisely the risk involved in making a prediction based upon someone else’s theory, especially if you do not fully understand the theory.

To that end I will tell you a true story.  I have left out some of the names as my intent is not to embarrass.

The propagation of disease by the inhaling of airborne particles of the disease is of no small interest.  And I will tell you up front that it is not my area of expertise…but when has that ever stopped me.

A colleague of mine was studying airborne disease propagation, and I kept hearing about the “Wells-Riley” equation.  It is an equation that looks at propagation as a process of inhaling disease carrying particles in quantities called, oddly enough, “quanta”.  The theory is that if you inhale a single quanta of diseased particles, you will get the disease.  I’m purposely leaving out two important issues for the moment, but don’t worry about them for now.

OK, so along comes the equation.  It’s relatively simple, it’s elegant, and unfortunately for a particular group of researchers, it was beguiling.

Do you remember the anthrax scare?  Sure you do.  There were stories of letters and packages being delivered by mail.  In them was a powder which usually was harmless, but was thought initially to be anthrax, a deadly source of disease.  One such incident involved what I think was the main Washington D.C. Post Office.  This then became the focus of a now published study.  The study was done for good reason.  There were unanswered questions about how difficult it was to provide sufficient protection against the threat of anthrax, and since that post office had actually been attacked, it appeared to be an ideal case to study using the Wells-Riley equation.  Sounds perfect, doesn’t it.

When my collegue first showed me the equation, it looked strangely familiar.  So, I looked at a statistics book and confirmed that the equation was actually a form of the Poisson Distribution equation for the probability of having one or more encounters with a single item that is randomly distributed.  So, here is the first thing I neglected to tell you.  In their original paper, to their credit, Wells and Riley mentioned that very fact.  We’ll get back to this.

The next thing I didn’t tell you is that each type of disease is thought to require a different number of separate particles (identical particles in theory) in order to form a single “quanta”.  That is, not all diseases have a single particle quanta.  Most require several particles to form a quanta.  The only disease with a single particle quanta as far as I know is tuberculosis, and as I said. this is not my field of expertise.  I have heard that the common cold requires a few hundred particles before a quanta is reached.  Anthrax supposedly requires thousands of particles to make up one quanta.  This is important to know because the Wells-Riley equation only works for a single particle quanta.  If it takes more than a single particle to make up one quanta, the equation has to be modified to include more terms.

And there lies the problem.  The Wells-Riley theory freely admits that it only covers the one particle quanta problem.  If you are dealing with a disease that requires thousands of particles to form one quanta, you need to add thousands of separate terms of the Poisson Distribution equation to run the proper calculation.  As it turns out, the conclusion reached by the anthrax researchers was off by a very substantial amount for just this reason.  As mentioned above, anthrax requires thousands of separate particles to constitute one quanta.

A foot note for this is that no one seemed to be sure at that time how many particles are in a quanta for any given disease or any type of particle that carries the disease.  I would also guess that a quanta for one person is not necessarily a quanta for some other person.  So at best, you can only look at this from the standpoint of the “average” person, whoever that is.

As I said up front, this is not my area of expertise.  I presume that the study of disease propagation has moved on since this incident.  This is just an example of one of the pitfalls of dealing with data where adequate theories have yet to be promulgated.  “All that glitters is not gold.”




Stories From an Engineering Office – #1- A Female Engineer is Hired

It happened around 1970. An exact date is beyond my memory, but I can tell you the following.

Our department within Hamilton Standard consisted of about two hundred people during the many years of the development of the Apollo Portable Life Support System (PLSS) and the environmental control system for the Lunar Excursion Module. Most of the two hundred were engineers, male engineers. True, we did employ one female engineer, but not in an engineering position. She had received her degree in the 1940’s as I recall, and she appeared satisfied with the type of work that she did. Why was she our only female engineer? I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t think it was a lack of appreciation of the engineering abilities of women. The fact was that there simply weren’t many women in the profession at that time.  And what a time it was.

Our first hiring in the new era of a young woman engineer right out of college happened after we had finished our designs for Apollo, made the hardware, tested it, and provided it to NASA. In fact, it had already gone to the Moon. So that left just about exactly an acre of space without cubicles, a sea of desks and drawing boards containing no computers or even calculators, awash in engineers that had no contract left to support them. We then did what any upstanding company would do under the circumstances.  We started laying people off.

By the time layoffs had run their course, the leavings looked pretty bleak. Coffee mug stained empty desks were everywhere.  Those two hundred people had done a spectacular job of putting the first man on the Moon for their country, and now the country was done with them. It was truly a sad thing to see.

However, as most upstanding companies will do under such circumstances, our department went hunting for new work.  Slowly it began to happen. New work started to emerge, but it was too late for those who were transferred to other parts of the company or who had been layed off. And one day, into this sparse atmosphere, walked our first female engineer of the new era. I never met her. I never knew her name.  Why, you ask?  Read on!

This young woman had hired on to work on a project funded by the new EPA. It was that and the fact that her brother was nearby in a school for either the blind or the deaf, just another detail I don’t remember. She had accepted the offer from Hamilton based upon those two items.

The story gets kind of bizarre at this point. Her new boss, being one of us, a man that is, blindly insensitive to the aesthetics that please women, set her down at a desk in the middle of several other empty desks. He then piled half the desk high with documents having nothing to do with the EPA contract, told her to study them, and informed her that the EPA contract was delayed for a while, and she would have to do other work instead. He then turned and walked away. And just to top it all off, the desk was filthy.

I’m sure none of this was done on purpose. They would have done the same, maybe worse, if they just hired a young man. And the young man would simply have said, “OK.” Ah, but this was no simple case. This person was a young woman. The very next day I watched from my desk, maybe thirty feet away, as two guards escorted her out of our one acre wasteland of a department, never to be seen again. Goodbye, whoever you are! It was one of those “What just happened?” moments.

Later that day, one of our young male engineers stopped by my desk. If anyone would have the whole story, he would. He told me about her desire to work on the EPA contract and her desire to be near her brother. And he said in amazement that she had been displeased with what she had experienced upon arrival less than twenty-four hours earlier and had quit right then and there.

And then he said a curious thing. “If it happened to a man, he wouldn’t quit.  We don’t have the guts!”


I went on the air in 1954 and became known as KN2JOY — K, because I lived in the United States; N, because I was a novice; 2, because I lived in New York State; and JOY, because the FCC must have thought I was happy, and I was. I was awarded a license to transmit radio signals by the FCC.  And “JOY” just happened to be the next set of letters on their list.  The friend who did it with me got “JOZ”.

I was fourteen years old, and I was a ham radio operator. It hadn’t been too many years after our home phone number was simply 1220, four digits, that was all. There were no area codes then. You needed an operator to get long distance, and long distance was not all that long, but when KN2JOY went on the air, anything was possible…the whole world could hear me, and I could hear them, at least in theory, and that was exciting.  As confirmation of my contacts  I would send out what is called a QSL card.  Here is the first one I ever received back.


I didn’t invent radio, but I felt like I had. I had built two Heathkits: an AT1 transmitter and an AR2 receiver. I had put up a long wire antenna that was about twelve feet above the ground. I had a simple telegraph key, and I was connected to the largest “grid” on planet Earth — RADIO. A year later I passed another test and became simply K2JOY, a ham with a General Class license.


I built another transmitter using money I made during the summers, a Johnson Viking Ranger, one beautiful, top of the line unit.

And then life began to happen. My mother became ill. My dad needed money because of it. I sold the Ranger and gave him the money. My mother died, and life changed. Ham radio fell out of my life, and several years later I was an officer in the USAF and a new husband.

A lot of years followed that, years without a license to transmit. And then in 2002, at the encouragement of a friend, I became known on air as K7WST with an Extra Class amateur radio license this time. I’m not obsessive about it, but even without an obsession, I have enjoyed contacts with other ham radio operators all around the globe, not just the East coast. My antennas now reach sixty feet above the ground, and my first signals as K7WST are now light years out into space and well behind those of that old K2JOY guy.

The first reaction among many people is, “Why bother? Today we have cell phones and the internet. You can contact anyone on the planet with no effort whatsoever.” It’s a fair question. And it represents the point where those of us in amateur radio say, “They just don’t get it, do they.” Well actually, millions of people do get it. There are literally millions of people around the world who are licensed amateurs. In the U.S. alone, one in every four hundred people are licensed hams. In my town of just a little over twenty thousand people, there are one hundred and seventy-one licensed amateur radio operators. Given that, there are at least one hundred and seventy-one different reasons for why they do it. Some because they like the gadgets, some because they like the challenge of making contacts around the globe, some because they want to help their community during times of disaster. Some of them are gregarious, extroverted people. Some are introverted. It doesn’t matter. You can be any type of person and enjoy amateur radio. You can be the most private person in the world and still like contacting other stations thousands of miles away.  And come on, do you really know someone in Bora Bora who is willing to accept your phone call or email?  You can bet there is a ham there who will listen to your morse code!

You can design and build your own equipment and antennas, or you can buy those same types of equipment and antennas from a myriad of companies in the amateur radio business. The ways you can lead your ham radio life are nearly endless.

Admittedly, amateur radio requires your learning about many technical issues, but you don’t have to be an engineer or scientist to do it. Plenty of people of all ages and backgrounds get licensed. There are numerous cases of children under ten years old who have licenses. And what do they receive in return? They learn about the sun, the atmosphere, even the ground and the oceans. They learn that you can bounce signals off just about anything: the moon, buildings, mountains, the Northern and Southern Lights. They learn about geography, time zones, sun up, and sun down.

And if you like competitive events, amateur radio has many, many contests for a wide ranging list of interests.

So, let’s look at amateur radio in more detail.

What Does a Station Look Like?

In its simplest form, all you need us a transmitter, a receiver, and an antenna. Nowadays, transmitters are usually built as one unit, a transceiver. Here is how I started back in 2002.


The transceiver is a used ICOM IC-737. At the time I had been awarded AC7VM for a call sign, but having an Extra Class license, I was allowed to pick a different unused call sign. I chose K7WST. Why that? Well, it had some advantages. First, it is rhythmic for the hand when sending it by Morse code. Second, WST are my wife’s maiden initials. I could have waited to get a call with just two letters after the seven, but that takes a lot of waiting.

The antenna was a GAP (a manufacturer) multi-band (meaning it worked for several different frequency ranges) vertical. Vertical antennas tend to pick up more noise, but they send your signal out at a low angle, which usually gets you longer distances. And in fact, my longest distance contact was made with that antenna. I still use it today.

My station today has picked up a few more transmitters, receivers, a new transceiver, and two long wire antennas. I won’t go into all the details, but here is what my station looks like now.  It’s actually the QSL card I use at present.


What can you do with an amateur radio station?

We’ve touched on this subject, but there is a lot more to learn. I, for instance, pretty much only use Morse code. I could say that I do that because my wife is related to Samuel F. B. Morse, which she is, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I like sending code. It’s fun. It also tends to go longer distances and still be understandable. It doesn’t take as much power as voice transmission, and it doesn’t take as much bandwidth (the spread of frequencies that comprise your signal).

When I got my license, you had to know Morse code. Now you don’t. So you can just use your voice if you like. I made a contact with someone in Brazil by voice, with only five watts! And that brings up another issue. How much power can you use? There is a limit, a legal limit. It’s fifteen hundred watts. That’s plenty. I would guess that many, if not most hams use a hundred watts or less. Most transceivers are built for one hundred watts. If you limit yourself to a maximum of five watts, it is recognized in the ham world as “QRP”, meaning low power. Some contests and other awards require that you use the QRP mode.

One of the more interesting awards that is not a contest is set up by a British group, IOTA, Islands On The Air. The idea is to contact all of the saltwater surrounded islands on their list. Check them out at on the web.

Besides contests and awards programs, you can participate in disaster support, collect contacts with stations at a great distance from you (DX’ing), experiment with radio designs, or just find a good friend and talk.

How does your signal go around the world?

No doubt you have heard of the ionosphere. If you haven’t, I’ll give you a simplified explanation. It is a series of layers containing ionized (electrically charged) particles (electrons, atoms, and molecules). It is at a height of about 30 miles to 600 miles above sea level. It changes constantly, especially from day to night, but also as a result of the activities of the sun. At any rate, it was amateur radio operators that found they could bounce signals off the ionosphere, thus getting the signals to travel well beyond the horizon. The distance from a station to the place where it’s signal hits the earth again after bouncing off the ionosphere is typically around two thousand miles. And it can then bounce back up and continue bouncing around the globe. Under the right set of conditions, it will actually bounce all the way around and back to the originating station. Conclusion? You can potentially contact anyone anywhere on the face of the Earth!

OK, there are a few problems with this story. Storms interfere, the state of the sun determines the strength of the ionosphere, and of course, someone has to be listening and hear your transmission. If there were no challenge to doing it, if it were easy, why bother? Challenges in life are part of the fun. You will find, however, that it won’t take long before you have contacted any number of far off places.

At very high and ultra high frequencies, especially the latter, things don’t bounce off the ionosphere well. They go right on through, but you can still bounce your signal off the Moon. True, it takes specialized equipment, but many hams do it.

This is only a broad look at how radio waves propagate. As you get more into amateur radio, you’ll learn a lot more.

Acronyms and Abbreviations 

Probably more than any other sport, hobby, or profession, except medicine, amateur radio has a long list of specialized terms, acronyms, and abbreviations. And there is a good reason for it all, brevity on air. In addition to all that, it carries with it the terminology of mechanical, electrical, and electronic engineering, and now, computing. Ham radio covers a wide range of technologies, anything from the mechanical aspects of putting up large towers capable of withstanding storms to the use of computers to operate transceivers and other devices.

Obviously, this booklet is too small to provide explanations for all the terminology you may encounter, and you shouldn’t be worried about it anyway. You’ll learn as you go, and you don’t have to know it all, just as much as you need. It’s always easy to look things up. The ARRL website and others can provide lists of abbreviations and acronyms that are particular to ham radio.


There are clubs galore. They are great places to find help. They are great places to find like minded hams. Probably the mother of them all is the Amateur Radio Relay League, the ARRL. You can find them at They publish a monthly magazine, “QST”. Yearly membership in the ARRL is not very expensive, and you get QST monthly as part of the deal, either as a paper magazine or an ezine, or both.

Without looking very hard, you will find local clubs in your area.

Reading Material 

There seems to be no end of books and magazines about ham radio. The ARRL publishes a pretty long list, including a set of very helpful books on how to get ready to pass the needed tests.  And then there is the internet. Go there and go crazy!


Money, it’s always money! OK, so it can be expensive or cheap. There is used equipment all over the place for good prices, including on the Internet. Just learn first. Get to know other hams. Their advice will be a great help. Virtually all hams are happy to be helpful. If you have only a little money to spend, you can always find what you need, even if it means fixing a transceiver that no longer works, building a kit, or waiting until you find the best deal. Antennas can be the cheapest part of the whole thing, or you can spend until you’re blue in the face. At any rate, cheap or expensive, the main ingredient is time and effort. All you really need is enthusiasm! 

Go for it! It will change your life!

Here are are few websites that will come in handy:

Seattle Night Skies

During a sunny day in the summer, it is hard to beat the views of the Seattle/Puget Sound area.  Night time is another story.  True you can see the moon come up over Puget Sound or the Cascade Mountains, depending on where you are in the area.  And it is many times quite beautiful.  Its reflection on the sound at night can be stunning also.

So here’s the problem.  It never seems to be truly clear at night around the Puget Sound.  There is always some haze or clouds.  I remember sleeping outdoors on a lake in Maine many years ago — talk about a clear sky!  WOW!

Yet we have one little secret we never told you…until now.  You can go for a whole month in the summer here without a cloud in the sky.  Summers are gorgeous, but for that pesky night thing.

You can pretty well count on a lunar eclipse, or a Northern Lights, or a meteor shower happening with hazy skies,  rainy skies, or cloudy skies without rain.  They play it up big several days ahead on the news, and then BANG!  You can’t see anything of interest at night, except the lights of Seattle.  Admittedly, they are a sight, but the eclipse, the meteors, the aurora — no such luck.

Recently there was a lunar eclipse, the fourth this year that could be seen from here if it were clear, but it wasn’t as I remember, for any of them.

Back when I lived in Connecticut, our house was on the side of a hill that looked a long ways out over the Connecticut River valley.  And as it so happened, I owned an 8 inch Celestron telescope.  And a lunar eclipse was predicted.  In those days I never heard it called a “blood moon,” but now everyone calls it that as though it were some new thing, rather than just hype.

Did I mention that I also owned a film SLR camera back then?

Blood Moon



I received my Master of Science degree from RPI in 1977.  What was the most interesting thing I learned, you ask?  The dirty little truth of the metric system.

Hey, units of measure have been a problem right from the start.  It got so bad at one point that standards for units of measure were spelled out in the Magna Carta!  Go look…it’s true.

The problem was taxes.  One year the king wanted higher taxes, but instead of raising the number of bushels a farmer owed, the king simply changed the size of an official bushel.  So, when they forced the king to agree to the Magna Carta, they included standardized units of measure in the document.  That worked until King Charles I started ignoring the Magna Carta.  And from that came rhymes like, “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water…”  At the time, Jack, Jill, and pail were all units of measure.  The rhyme goes on to say that “Jack fell down, ” referring to a change in the size of a Jack.  “And broke his crown” referred to the king.

And then there was another rhyme, “A pint’s a pound the world around.” Where did that come from?  Well, according to our Heat Transfer professor, who once spent a whole class period decrying the metric system, it was part of a union protest song against the incorporation of the metric system.  As you are aware, pints and pounds do not belong to the metric system.

So, what’s the big deal?  Why don’t we just change to the metric system and have done with it?  And here is where it gets interesting.  The primary reason why we in the United States stay with the English system of units is…you waiting for this?…screw threads!  There is no equivalency between metric thread sizes and English thread sizes.  The cost to manufacturers to make the change over in thread sizes, not only for their products, but also their machines, their instrumentation, their drawings, their documents, their tolerance studies, their stress analyses, their product literature, their stock of replacement parts,  the number of screws used in their parts, the number and type of screws stockpiled for new and replacement products, and the product literature for customers and customer service people would cost huge amounts of both time and money.  Guess who would pay for that…YOU!

And what is truly laughable about it is that few, if any countries are running completely on the metric system.

So here is another little thing you may not know.  Calories are not in the metric system.  For all intents and purposes, calories don’t exist.  I can’t wait to tell all the weight loss gurus that it is Joules, not calories, that are the units of energy recognized by the metric system.

Another well known secret that we aerospace engineers try not to tell anyone is that all length dimensions on airplanes and spacecraft are recorded in inches and decimals of inches.  We don’t use feet.  We don’t use yards.  Try to find anything but inches on our drawings or in our calculations?  Lots of luck!  I wonder how far it is to the sun in inches.  Somewhere around 5.9 trillion inches I believe.  No wonder it takes so long to get there.


I touched on this a little in my previous post on music, GOT RHYTHM? — 2, when I mentioned that the rhythm of a steam engine can be heard in the left hand of boogie woogie when played on a piano.  And that brings up the question of just what is it that has created various musical rhythms throughout the history of music?

Obviously, I am not professional musician.  I had one music course in college, an engineering college, and I don’t remember much about it.  So, it is safe to say that I am far from a musical scholar.  That I have played the piano for nearly seventy years and have listened to all sorts music, new and old, is all that I can claim.  So, here is my generalization about the creation of musical rhythms through the part of musical history with which I am familiar.  Rhythm is about movement of the human body!

And you are now saying in your head, “Tell me something I didn’t already know.”  When you think of the movement of the human body as it relates to music, you usually think of dance, but I’m not talking about dance.  I’m talking about “transportation” — the rhythm of walking, the rhythm of riding a horse, the rhythm of riding in a horse drawn carriage, the rhythm of riding in a ship, the rhythm of riding on a train.  And I admit this is truly a generalization, but you can hear those different rhythms become commonplace in music as the modes of travel become commonplace in history.  You may have to listen to some classical music all the way up through boogie woogie, but I would argue that changes in commonplace modes of travel cause changes in commonplace musical rhythms.

Modes of travel and modes of music share a common desire…freedom!  Maybe that’s why they share rhythms.

What do you think?

(So here is a small digression related only to riding horses — another piece of history on which I am not an expert.  Military tanks are part of the  “cavalry”.  And that is because they replaced horses on the battlefield as a weapon of war.  Tanks have been around about one hundred years as the premier mobile weapon on the ground.  Prior to that, horses were the premier mobile weapon of war on the ground.  Horses on the other hand, held the job for four thousand years!  Do you think tanks will ever match that record?)

Try This in Your Vanpool

In my last several years working for Boeing, I rode in a vanpool.  Sometimes I drove, and sometimes I just sat.  In the times that I just sat, I noticed something interesting.  If I simply mentioned something, even just a single word, the conversation in the van would change to the subject that I mentioned.  I pointed that out once and explained that I had been placed in the vanpool as a psychological researcher to observe vanpool conversations.  Of course it was a joke, but the process of uttering a single word to change the whole conversation was impressive.

One day, the single word influence was challenged by my fellow riders.  They swore they wouldn’t say anything, no matter what word or subject I suggested.  I thought about it for a few seconds and then said the single word that proved my theory, “shoes”.

Immediately, the van went quiet, and it remained that way for a minute or two, but you could literally feel the tension building.  The vanpool was roughly even between men and women, and as I suspected, one of the women finally broke.  In tones of desperation  she said she could no longer stand the strain.  And off went the conversation about shoes.

I can’t give you much advice about the best words to use.  I tried “dinosaurs” once.  That worked pretty well.  I think you have to know your audience well enough to know what they will talk about easily.  Don’t tell them what you’re doing, simply pick a word and say it aloud.  See what happens.

Let us know how well it works by commenting on this particular blog!

Got Rhythm? — 2

By now, you are aware that I like at least some, maybe most, classical music, but there’s more to the story…

When I was a boy growing up in Hicksville, New York, I enjoyed going to the train station.  I was told back then that the Long Island Railroad ended in Hicksville.  I just recently found out that Mr. Hicks owned the railroad when he was alive.  So, it all sort of makes sense.  Nowadays it goes much further out on the Island.

Diesel engines were just starting to show up in the mix when I was a kid.  Most of what I saw at the station were steam engines.  There were no safety rails or fences, no yellow lines you had to stay behind, and no one looking out for a small boy who wanted to stand close to the tracks.  I remember standing there as a steam engine rolled in slowly to a stop.  The wheels were taller than I was.  The powerful rhythm of the engine was nearly deafening.  The motion of the linkages was complicated and fascinating.  It was a dance really, a dance of power. I was transfixed by it all.  I stood there willing myself not to move, taking in every noise, motion, and vibration I could.

Beholding a steam engine in motion conveys many things to your mind — power, strength, speed, distance.  And the one thing that holds all those experiences together is rhythm.  You don’t hear much of steam engines in music, certainly not the music of today.  However, there was a day when there was a music that had that same sense of rhythm, that same sense of unstoppable power, Boogie Woogie.  Sometimes referred to as Eight to the Bar, Boogie Woogie is music that was built for the solo piano.  It shows up in bands sometimes, but the piano is its home.  Four names come to my mind in this discussion, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Jim Yancey.  Certainly there are others both before and after these men, but these are the ones with which I am familiar.  Among these four, I would rate Albert Ammons as my favorite.

So, why do I like Boogie Woogie?  Because it sounds, for the most part, like train engines — the relentless left hand providing the rhythm that drives the train forward.  It has that sense of a machine with a purpose, an unstoppable one.

There’s plenty to read about Boogie Woogie, but listening to it tells you more than anything.  I would recommend two CD’s.  One is an early CD reproduction of recordings made by Albert Ammons.  On that CD, you will also find his version of “The St. Louis Blues,” written by W. C. Handy, and published in 1914.  Now admittedly it’s a blues piece not Boogie Woogie, but blues is a close cousin.  In a way, Boogie Woogie is blues without words.

The CD is titled, “Albert Ammons The Boogie Woogie Man.”  Also included on it are four of what I remember to be eight great duets featuring Pete Johnson with Albert Ammons. I like “Barrelhouse Boogie” and “Sixth Avenue Express” the best.  I’m a sucker for polyrhythm.  Here is the Amazon link.  See if you hear the same train engines I do.

A second CD I would recommend is called “Albert Ammons 1936 – 1939,” and it is another great source of the music.  “Chicago on My Mind,” is my favorite on that CD.  [I just noticed that the price shown on the link is $125.  On the Amazon site there are several options for price.  That is not the Amazon price.  That is from a separate source.  The Amazon price is around $27.]


We all wonder at the flight of birds, baseballs, and airplanes.  Well, I’m neither an ornithologist nor a pitching coach, but I am an engineer.  And I would like to tell you about the wonder of flying machines.  I’ve watched many airplanes takeoff while standing at ground level not too far away.  Besides commercial airplanes, I’ve flown in a fair number of  other planes, quite a few rides in C-130’s, once in a C-123 (and once was enough), once in a T-33 single engine jet trainer, once in a float plane, once in a biplane, a few other rides in small planes, and a couple rides in gliders.  They were all fun to ride in, but watching a takeoff while standing nearby in the open is something altogether different.

An airplane goes through many stages in its life — from a brief flash of an idea to real flying metal.  As each stage runs its course, any number of things can go wrong.  The initial concept itself changes rapidly as new ideas come to the forefront.  Some of those ideas are good, and some are not, but eventually some of each get incorporated.  Then the hard design gets going.  Calculations are made.  Schematics are drawn.  Parts are selected.  New part designs are developed.  And all through the design process mistakes are made.  They usually aren’t big, or else the plane would fail miserably somewhere in its development, or it would possibly turn out to be too expensive.  It is not uncommon to find better ways to do things, and many times those things cause changes to be made, but some “mistakes” become apparent  too late in the process, and we learn to live with them.

As the design progresses and corrections are made, finished drawings start to flow out of the engineering departments.  And, you guessed it, they also have errors in them.  So, they get checked, and the ones that are found get fixed.   As manufacturing goes on, other problems arise, and most of the mistakes that cause them are fixed, but not all.

One day a hanger door opens and a new plane is rolled out.  It won’t be perfect.  Perfection is always beyond reach.  And ultimately, there is only one way to be sure it will fly…FLY IT!

That first flight of a new design is an amazing thing.  I’m sure the Wright brothers were no less amazed than we are today when a new design takes flight for the first time.  I’ve seen it, and many others have seen it, but most people never do.  So, let’s see if I can make it real to you.

It will be a day of good, if not great weather.  It won’t happen at the crack of dawn.  It will be near midday, not too early to get the plane ready, and not too late to curtail the flight to come.  I’ve seen many airplanes takeoff, as I have said, but watching a design that has never flown takeoff for it’s first flight is especially breath taking.  I’ve seen new models of the 767 and the 747 takeoff for the first time, and I’ve seen the first takeoff of the ultra flexible 787.  They were all nail biters in their own way, and they were all spectacular.

So, don’t just watch an airplane takeoff from where you sit or stand at an airport waiting area window.  Find a place to watch either a large jet or a jet fighter takeoff, and be right there on the ground nearby.  Listen to it.  Feel the ground shake.  Ask yourself, how can this be possible?  How can a machine seem so alive?  And even if it isn’t the first takeoff of a new design, it will be new to you every time you see it.  And the imperfections will no longer matter.  No one ever asks a bird how it feels.

Got Rhythm? — The Flight of the Bumblebee Revisited

It is impossible to ignore music.  You may say you don’t like music, but music exists in everything you do.  It exists in everything in your personal universe.  One of my novels, Beyond the Breakers, has a cover that was made from this picture:

 Indian ocean

It’s a picture of waves in the Indian Ocean.  I’ve never seen the Indian Ocean, but it looks like the same waves I swam in as a boy on Jones Beach, off of Long Island, NY.  If you stuck a long pole in the sand and measured the time it took for each peak to pass the pole in terms of the number of peaks passing it per second, it would be less than one peak per second.  Yet, as we all know, ocean waves are loud.

So, how can that be?  Our ears can’t hear sounds at frequencies as low as the frequency of the peaks of those ocean waves.  It’s because there are other waves mixed in with the big ones.  And those waves have all sorts of frequencies.  Many pass the  poll at frequencies that are in our hearing range…usually considered to be about 20 to 20,000 cycles per second.  So, there must be waves in that mix of ocean water that you hear that are passing the pole anywhere from 20 to 20,000 times each second.

I don’t want to make this too technical, so I will leave out the tiny, and in some cases not so tiny, details.

That said, I will only add that vibrations and waves run the universe.  They carry energy, both sound and radiation, everywhere.  There is one other thing that you should be told.  They interfere with each other.  In so doing, they create other waves at different frequencies.  And that will bring us back to music and ultimately to ” The Flight of the Bumblebee.”

I wrote a blog recently about my piano.  It was all writing and a couple of pictures.  You will note that I did not include a sound file.  Why didn’t I?  It would have been a natural fit.  The reason is that recordings are not as easy to make as you might think.  And one of the most difficult things to record faithfully is a piano.  It is all because of waves, what frequencies the microphones can hear, where they have to be placed in the piano, and how the wave characteristics inherent in all electronics interact with the wave characteristics of the piano.  On top of that, add the hearing characteristics of the human ear and brain.  Believe me, I’ve tried to record my piano.  It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t my specialty.

So, when you hear a recording of musical instruments, keep in mind that live music is the only type that actually sounds like live music.

What if a composer or performer has died?  Are their performances lost forever?  It would seem like it, but I have a recording of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” which, except for the fact that it is not live, is as close to the actual performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff as you can find.  And strangely enough, the recording was created by an engineer.

At this point I have to introduce you to a different kind of piano, a “recording piano.”  You know what a piano roll is.  It’s a paper record of the keys played and the timing of those keys that matches what a pianist has actually played.  What it does not do is record how loud or softly the  keys are played.  It doesn’t record how the peddles are used.  It misses a lot.  Recording pianos record all of that.  So, if you play back the “tape” made by a recording piano on another recording piano, you will hear pretty much exactly what the original pianist actually played.  If Rachmaninoff recorded his playing on a recording piano, you could play it back “exactly” as he played it even after he was dead, which unfortunately, he is.  However, he did make those recordings!

There was a restaurant in New York City that had a recording grand piano.  It may be still in business.  I don’t know.  I’ve never been there, the restaurant, not New York.  I was born in New York City, stayed there a day or so, and then was sent home to Hicksville.  Meanwhile, you could (maybe can) eat dinner in that restaurant and listen to Rachmaninoff and many other great composers play their own music as a ghost, so to speak…not that creepy actually.

So, would you like to hear a recording of Rachmaninoff playing “The Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov and other music?  Well an engineer named Wayne Stahnke has made that possible at the highest level so far.  I have two CD’s of Rachmaninoff playing a list of classical pieces for the piano.  And for the impatient among you, they are each rather short.

OK, so I like classical music and some of you don’t.  I don’t like everything I hear, but you will be surprised when you hear some of these pieces.  “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is the third piece on the first CD below.  So, sit in front of a grand piano with nobody at the keys and listen to Rachmaninoff himself.  Like all music, some you will like and some you won’t, but you will be amazed at what that man could do!  Here’s a picture of my piano you can pull up and print if you don’t have a grand piano hanging around.  Don’t light the candle!  It is wood after all.


And here are links to the CD’s:

Enjoy the waves!

“Flight of the BumbleBee”

“Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov is a short, busy piece of classical music.  And although I would love to tell you more about it, I will save that for another time, but there are more than just bees in the air — airplanes!  Have you ever considered how amazing they are?  The 747 weighs nearly a million pounds!  Its wings do not flap, and yet it flies — at nearly the speed of sound — at up to 43,000 feet above the ground!

How do I know this?  You may have guessed.  In my former life before retirement, I was an aerospace engineer, probably still am at heart.  In the recent past, I spent time certifying cooling systems for the latest 747-8 passenger and freighter airplanes.  That included flight testing.  So, I know it can fly.  I assure you it can fly…and fly well!  And here is one interesting story about one of those test flights.

We were testing the EE Cooling system at various altitudes a few years back, and on one particular day, late in the day, we were flying over the Pacific Ocean not too far from Los Angeles.  The sun was near to setting, and we were at 3,000 feet above the water.  We did that type of testing over the ocean to be sure we didn’t run into things at that low altitude…you know, like a mountain or something.  What happened next was that we climbed back up to 43,000 feet, and that baby can climb!

Behind us, as seen by a landlubber, was a streak in the sky starting at what looked like ocean level and going up rapidly.  Behind that was the sun.  The streak, although we couldn’t see it from inside the airplane, was made a brilliant yellow, gold by the sun, a hard to miss event.  It made the news all across the country.  Some people thought it was the Chinese firing a test missile offshore of the United States.  At least that was the most spectacular explanation.

And no one seemed to know.  The FAA was contacted, and they didn’t know.  None of the “experts” knew.  We knew!

It was us.  We were the missile.  We were the streak in the sky that evening.  It was simply a test flight of the 747-8.  And, of course, we never got credit for it.

Oh well, fame…even when you’re  famous, they don’t know who you really are.

It has been said that bumblebees can’t fly, any aerodynamicist can tell you that, but yet, the bees fly.  A propulsion engineer once said in defiance of the aerodynamicist, “Give me a big enough engine, and I can make anything fly!”  So, I guess all bumblebees are cleared for takeoff.


Here are some books about the Boeing 747 available from Amazon:

And just for kicks, here are a few of the other links for some of the Boeing related books on Amazon:



The PLSS, or “Portable Life Support System” is the backpack that was used for the Apollo Moon missions.  Since I have mentioned a number of things about it, I thought it would be of interest if you had a bit more information about it in general.  I recently found this link on the NASA website:


It evidently was written by my old company, Hamilton Standard.   And no, the guy in the picture is not me.  Maybe I knew him, but that was nearly half a century ago.  I can’t expect to remember everyone.

If you have any questions, drop me an email or leave a comment.

Water on the Moon — Part 3

If you go back to one of the earliest posts found on this website, you can read about the importance of water to the Apollo Moon missions. The story below relates to a device that was developed for the Apollo backpack, but never included in the final versions.

Just as a quick reminder, you may remember that water was boiled off into the vacuum of space by the Sublimator in the Apollo backpack. Since the water quantity left in the backpack reservoir was then a crucial issue, we thought that adding a water quantity sensor would be a good idea. That way an astronaut using the backpack could tell how much time he had left before he had to return to the Lunar Module from walking on the Moon’s surface. So, one of our designers designed one, and it was built and tested. It worked as planned, but…

When tested, it always overestimated the amount of water used by quite a bit. That came as a surprise, a very disappointing surprise, and one that took a while to figure out. And then one day it dawned on one of our engineers just why it happened. Unfortunately, it made perfect sense, and there was nothing we could do about it.

If you remember, there was nitrogen dissolved in the water held in the Reservoir of the backpack. And, as the water was released for use in the Sublimater, the pressure of the water dropped dramatically as this happened, and the nitrogen would come out of solution and form bubbles in the water, much like the formation of bubbles when you open a soda. Well, that now happened inside the newly designed Water Quantity Sensor. The Water Quantity Sensor then counted the volume of bubbles as it did the volume of water that passed through it. As a result, the sensor was always wrong on the high side. Given that sort of reading, an astronaut on the Moon’s surface would always stop his moon walk quite early. That wasn’t acceptable, so the wonderful little mechanical Water Quantity Sensor was never used in the final design of the backpack. The astronauts then had to limit their walks by timing them.

Another great idea down the drain, if you’ll excuse the pun!


As a kid, I lived on Long Island, NY. I’ve actually spent two thirds of my life living on islands and still do. However, when you look at Long Island you realize it is sizable, 110 miles long and about 30 miles from south to north at roughly the middle. It’s hard to think of it as an island when you live there.

On Long Island there are two counties that are a part of New York City, Queens and Brooklyn. I was born in a hospital in Queens in 1940. A couple of days later I went with my new parents back to our home in Hicksville, a village in the town of Oyster Bay, which is in Nassau County, outside of NYC.

Given all that geometry, I should mention that there was a Major League baseball team in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Dodgers. One would think that as a boy I would root for the Dodgers, but my parents were from southern New Jersey, and although they did not follow baseball, my Uncle Arthur did. He was a Philadelphia Phillies fan…and so was I.

Our TV was black and white in those days. I never saw a game in color on TV. And then my Uncle took me to Connie Mack stadium in Philadelphia to a night game between the Phillies and the Dodgers. I was probably around ten at the time.

I cannot tell you who won, but it was the time of the Whiz Kids, and Philly could certainly have won. What I can tell you is that I will always remember the colors of the uniforms and the color of the grass. Both were a sight to be seen for a boy who had watched games only in black and white. I was a little disappointed to see that the uniforms of the Dodgers stood out in the bright lights of the night game much more so than the uniforms of my team.

And there was one other thing I saw. It was simply amazing. A Dodger swung, and the ball climbed like a rocket, easily lifting itself over the very high double decker left field stands and out of sight into the streets of Philadelphia.

The man who did it was named Jackie Robinson! I can still see it happening.

The Problem With Little Green Men

So here is my problem with little green men, not the fictional ones, the real ones:
  1. Regardless of your perceptions of probability, there is no evidence of life elsewhere in the universe.  That bothers many people.  They WANT there to be life elsewhere.  Recordings of data have a way of being distorted to meet the WANTS of the data takers and interpreters.  Wait for the truth.  Don’t devalue it with WANTS.
  2. War is almost a law of Nature in itself.  I do hate to say it, but the will to survive leads to competition to survive, which leads to wars.  If there indeed is life elsewhere, it will be as warlike as we are on this planet.  There is no reason or evidence to support any other theory.  We are the only DATA, and we are pretty convincing.  It may not be what we WANT, but DATA is FACT.  Oh, did I mention that war is expensive?
  3. Space travel is expensive.  For that FACT, we have overwhelming DATA.  To think that it is different on some other planet falls into the WANT category.  Our DATA predicts that their economics are similar to ours.  We have no other DATA.  One should expect that they have debt crises, just like ours.  They have other priorities, just like we do.  Even if the technical challenges were easy, they can’t afford to get here anymore than we can afford to get there.  Show me a real wormhole that can bypass the economic reality we live in, and I will reconsider the issue.  Just keep in mind that its life cycle costs have to be low, very low.  It must cost only a very small percentage of the GNP, not the whole thing.  I will not vote for anything that bankrupts planet Earth just so two guys and a woman can travel beyond the speed of light, only to be eaten by the little green men when they get there!
So, keep on with the fictional little green men.  They’re the only ones who don’t require reality.  Nature and your wallet do!

The Piano

{copyright 2014 Arthur K Davenport}

There is much written about the history of the piano, and I will leave it to the reader to find what they want on the subject.  So, what can I add?  Well first, I should say that I play the piano, but not professionally.  I am fair at it, but not great.  I once memorized twenty pages of Gershwin’s, “Rhapsody in Blue”.  That gives you sort of an idea.

I took lessons for eleven years starting at age six.  I took my second year off and finished the remaining ten years starting at age 8 or so.  Who knew it would take that much boring practice.  Why did I continue to do it?  Simple, I love the piano.

The first nine years of lessons were wasted with teachers who were nice enough, but not inspiring enough.  And I didn’t practice enough.  I never had anything to learn that I liked.  It was probably typical of many music student’s lives, except that I didn’t give up.  And then I met a guy across the street, Harry O’Mera, who was a jazz pianist by trade.  I think most of what his quartet played were weddings and night clubs.  He kept miserable hours, and was a chain smoker.  However, he was generally a nice guy with a good sense of humor and an ability to play just about anything if you just hummed the tune for him.  I learned more about music in two years with Harry than all the other lessons combined.  Heck, I learned that much from him in the first month.  AND, I started practicing.  I played things I liked. Harry enjoyed it, and I enjoyed it.

So, what type of piano music do I like?  Well, just about everything.  I like classical, jazz, boogie boogie, ragtime.  However, I have my limits in all of those fields.  Who is my favorite classical pianist?  There are many, but I would say my all time favorite is Gary Graffman.  My favorite jazz pianist:  Earl Garner…boogie boogie:  Albert Ammons (his duets with Pete Johnson are classics)…ragtime:  Max Morath.

And what do I really know about the insides of a piano?  OK, I’m no expert, but most engineers don’t let that stop them.

There was an article in Scientific American many years ago about acoustic pianos versus electronic pianos, and electronic ones have come a long way since then, but here are some of the interesting points that were made.  First, acoustic pianos are filled with sounds that you don’t really notice.  You hear them, but you don’t notice them.  So, when they asked a group of strangers to determine which recording was from an acoustic piano and which was not, 85% of them picked the right answer.  The noise comes from numerous sources:  the pedals, the hammers, the movement, strings that are not being struck, parts of the strings that are never struck, any number of things.  It’s what makes the acoustic sound unique.  Remove those sounds, and it doesn’t sound like a piano.  I have never heard an electronic keyboard that can touch it.  And maybe that’s just me.  I wasn’t raised listening to electronic music.

However, it would be wise to conclude that not all acoustic pianos sound the same.  After all, there are numerous mechanical items whose materials vary, even though they are the same on paper.  The designs of different size pianos and different manufacturers are another large influence.  How each piano is tuned and adjusted is also a big influence.  And then there is always humidity, room acoustics, and who knows what else.

Finally, there is the ear of the listener.  If you were to be in the market for a piano, what would sound good to you?  I happen to like “bright” pianos.  Typically, solo concert pianos are bright.  They are great for solo piano work, but not so great for background situations such as accompanying singers or for use in bands.  Some manufacturers are better at bright pianos, and some are better at pianos used for accompanying other instruments and voices.  If you are a soprano, you probably do not want to be accompanied by a piano that sparkles in your voice range.

For all of my piano playing history, I have loved the sound of a Steinway, a concert grand Steinway.  It is certainly a bright piano…just what I like.  Decades ago I visited a dealer that had ninety Steinways on the floor.  I tried several of them and found a seven foot grand piano that I loved.  I should add that not all Steinways of the same size and design sound the same or feel the same.  You have to find the one that fits you best, just what real concert pianists do.

There was only one problem with the piano I liked.  The price was $40,000.  That was far out of my range.  So, I went back to my upright and settled on the idea that I would never own a grand piano.  And then one day, decades later, my wife heard of a concert grand piano, a bright one, that was for sale.  It was old, built in 1906, but within our price range.  It was a Weber concert grand, fully nine feet long, and it was my piano in both sound and feel from the moment I touched it.  We bought it.

So, I am going to tell you about a Weber piano that sparkles and booms, one that doesn’t like competition for the top spot.  Here are two pictures:


This piano is quite special to me.  I love its sound.  I love the feel of it.  And yet, as they say, there’s more.  What follows is not verified, although it’s probably true.  It’s hard to get the facts pinned down.

It’s well known among professional pianists that concert tours are physically demanding.  And even for a famous man like Ignacy Jan Paderewski, it can take its toll on arms and nerves.  He is known to have had problems with one arm.  And here is where there is no direct support for the story, but he is said to have asked his normal supplier, Steinway, to make four special pianos for him.  These pianos were to have a greater number of strings in each unison, the group of strings that make up each separate note.  The idea was to limit the effort required to get the same sound level.  In a normal piano at the upper end, there are three strings per unison.  In his pianos, he wanted four per unison.  Supposedly, Steinway refused.  However, Weber is said to have agreed.  If you look again at the right hand picture above, you will see that the unisons have four strings each.  It seems that this is one of the four Paderewski’s pianos.  Another one belongs (or did belong) to a dealer in California.  I am told that another one is in a bar in Portland, Oregon.  The location of the fourth is unknown to me.  Paderewski did indeed play some of his concerts on Weber pianos and did write at least one letter of recommendation for Weber, a copy of which I have.  And here is one more proof of his use.  This is a copy of a playbill that I found in the Seattle Public Library.


If you look closely at the bottom, you will see that a Weber piano was used.  My guess is that the pictures above are of that exact piano.

All I know of the piano’s history after Paderewski is what the salesman told me.  He said that it had belonged to the Mason’s for many years.  After that it was owned by a woman whose name I do not know.  When I got it, I found fourteen pieces of dried chewing gum on the underside and numerous glass stains inside (not visible when fully assembled) under the action assembly.  True, it could use a little work, but it is really in good condition overall and sounds wonderful.  At the time we bought it, I had no idea of its possible history.  It was our first piano tuner who was surprised by the four string unisons, and who knew the owner of the other piano down in California.  It would be nice to know more, but it plays and sounds just as well even if that’s all we ever learn about it.



The Solution to the Area Problem

Just so you have the weekend to consider things, here is the solution for the last post.  I did it ten or fifteen years ago.  If you have any questions after looking at it, drop me a line.  I used three pages to do it, but with smaller writing, it will fit on just one page.  In the end, I remembered the correct selection of numbers from the first time I solved the problem.  If you were doing it for the first time, you would have to do a few more quick trials at the end of the process.  If you used a computer to find the answer for you, you get no points for the solution.




A Hand Calculation — NO COMPUTERS ALLOWED!

Well, it’s been a while since my last post.  I’ve been busy.  Here is something that will keep you busy as well.  There is only one rule.  You must solve this problem with paper and pencil only — No Computers Allowed.  It is easily solved by a computer, but where’s the fun?  Where’s the understanding?

To the best of my memory, this problem first came to my attention in the 1960’s.  That was before we had personal computers.  Back then, it had to be solved by hand (and mind).  I gave this problem to a colleague a few years ago with the same admonition to not use a computer.  He was really proud of himself for solving it with his computer.  Good computer, bad memory.

Anyway, as I recall, I found this in a copy of Aviation Week.  If my memory is wrong on this, my apologies.  I do not recall if the problem listed its author.  Here goes:

There are three rectangles of the same area.  The area is a positive whole number.  (no hidden  tricks)  The sides are as follows:

X by (X – 278), Y by (Y – 96), and Z by (Z – 542)

X, Y, and Z are also positive whole numbers.

What is the area?

I assure you, there is only one correct answer.  And you can fit the solution on one side of one sheet of 8X10 paper if you don’t write too big.  You don’t have to write all that small either.  However, use as much paper as you want.

I’ll post my solution in late June.  I have an old handwritten version that I can scan.  I wrote fairly big, so it took three pages.  However, I could fit it on one page if pressed only slightly.

You’ll have to trust me when I say I have already solved this three times over the years.  The first time took a week.  The last time took less than an hour.  They were done far enough apart so that I forgot most of the details of the solution, but having a vague memory of it certainly helped on the second and third efforts.

Maybe you have a better way.  Just remember, do not use a computer!  This must be solved by hand.

WHY ENGINEER? – Chapter 9 – Some Rules of Thumb!

I’ve been giving this some thought, and I will provide a few simple rules here, but I may add to them in the future.  I never wrote these things down.  So, please be patient as I recall them over time.

I will start with two rules from two Rays, Ray Horstman and Ray Trush, neither of whom knew each other.  I can’t say with assurance that the rules were originated by the Rays, but they certainly could have been.  I am still in contact with RH, but I have not seen RT in nearly thirty years.  And although these two rules are both possibly in the category of humor, there is quite a bit of serious truth in them.

1.  RH:  “Thumb times it works, and thumb times it doesn’t!”  Depending on your own view of the world, you could interpret this to mean that either success is inevitable or failure is inevitable.  At any rate, you have to be ready for either.

2.  RT:  “An once of image is worth a pound of performance!”  My memory of RT is of his positive humor.  He used this phrase to softly mock those who followed the path of image before performance.  I include it here to remind you that good engineering is sometimes an uphill battle of attitudes.

And here is a third rule of thumb.  It is a serious comment, and I am sorry to say that I do not remember the name of the person who penned it.  It was in an article about the engineering of systems from many years back.

3.  “Remember, a model is not reality!”  Mathematical modeling of physical and electrical systems has become common place with the introduction of computers on every desk.  And it is both a wonder and a danger.  When you print out the results of computers on graphs and other media (especially in color), it adds a sense of reality that all too often is not quite true, sometimes not true at all.  Computer output may be impressive, but it should always be looked at with caution. Don’t read too much into it.  It is the easy way out at times, and very tempting.

Here’s an example:  computational fluid dynamics, CFD, depends on things called “turbulence models”.  And to quote a phrase, thumb times they work and thumb times they don’t.  The reason for this is that no one truly understands turbulence, and therefore can not truly model turbulence.  And the answers produced by these various models can be quite different from actual test data.  Now don’t throw CFD out the window because I just said that, but as with all mathematical models, be careful how you use it.

And finally, here is an old one that has been around the block many times.

4.  “We never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over!”  (origin unknown, at least to me)  Unfortunately, this is more than the ordinary rule of thumb.  In many cases it is the “Law of Thumb.”  All I can say is that when you run across it, do the best you can.


There is a category of rules that is worth a short discussion.
Murphy’s Law, or Laws, consists primarily of one statement, “If something can go wrong, it will,” or words to that effect. You can find various lists of Murphy’s Laws, some being rather long. Many items on these lists probably did not come from Captain Murphy.  Some are entertaining, and some are true; however, the original law is not a central point in design.  Rather the point is that everything has a probability of failure, and the point of good design is to reduce that probability to an acceptable level.

WHY ENGINEER? — Chapter 8 — How Much Does Engineering Pay?

When I started my engineering career, I didn’t know how much engineers were paid. I knew roughly how much my dad was paid, and he was an engineer, but he was way beyond the starting salary level. Nowadays you can go on the web and find numerous sources for pay information, and I assume you have done that.

So, what can I tell you that you don’t already know? You’ve probably noticed that pay varies with specialty, industry, company, and location. And no doubt you assume that it goes up with experience. Well, I would say that experience is tricky. In general, pay eventually goes down with experience!

OK, that does sound strange, and you may not want to worry about that early in your career, but someday it will become an issue. You no doubt can find information about this phenomena on the web if you look hard enough. Here is a quick and simplified explanation.

The good news is that the younger engineers get the best raises. Of course that means the older engineers don’t. If you were to see a graph of salaries of all the engineers at your company versus years out of college you would notice that it climbs, flattens out, and then goes down! It isn’t that the salaries of the older engineers actually go down. It shows up in the graph that way because of salary inflation. The younger employees started out higher, and that starting level loads the curve to the left. Companies actually use that sort of data in mapping out their salary plans.

The shape of the curve also reflects the fact that the older engineers are a captive audience, so to speak. A company holds onto employees by giving the biggest raises to the young and inexperienced. Sorry, but that is the way things are done. Some people try to avoid that by changing jobs in an attempt to get higher pay at the point where the graph starts to flatten. I have never seen data on that, but my impression is that it is by no means a guaranteed strategy. There are things at play here other than salary level. Change has its problems, many of which are personal. Also, change actually does cost money. What you see about changing jobs for money in the news, in TV shows, and in the movies is not representative of average reality.

I changed employers in my mid forties. I didn’t do it for the money. The real reason is complicated. I can’t even explain it to myself. If I had the chance to do it over, I would. The money was better where I was, the job was better, and starting over at that age wasn’t easy — but who knew? One of my first bosses was born and raised in Germany. His favorite quote was, “Ve grow too soon old and too late schmart!” He had an accent.

Some things you are going have to figure out for yourself. Just remember that the way pay looks this year will not be how it looks twenty years from now.

Hey, you won’t be poor.

WHY ENGINEER? — Chapter 7 — What Do I Need to Know About Office Politics?

Just to get you going, how about a little sarcasm? Here’s my definition of “politics”.

Poli-tics : many blood sucking insects.

OK, now I can back off a little, just a little.

The first and already discussed aspect of politics is the use of lies to get ahead. I think I discussed that enough in the blog about ethics, so I’ll skip that part of politics.

Possibly the least objectionable thing about office politics is the surest way to the top, treating the company as though it is the most important thing in your life. All you have to do is work more hours than anyone else. Work weekends. Work nights. Companies tend to reward that type of behavior with promotions. Pretty soon you will give the impression that you will make a good manager.

That was simple! Yet, it has some flaws that can catch you unawares. First, when you are promoted into management, you will convince yourself that you got there because you are the greatest engineer the world has ever seen. The odds of that being true are near zero. If you don’t fall for that, you will probably be a better manager. The next falsehood you need to avoid is that you got the job because you are a great manager…WRONG! You got the job because you sacrificed most of your life for the company.

So, if you can avoid those two traps, and you don’t mind what it has done to your private life, and you actually do have good management skills, you will do well and be happy.

So, here is the other side of the coin. I have a friend who was faced with a request to work a lot of free overtime. This was his response, “I have a job, and I have a wife, and I am only married to one of them!” You might want to think about that.

The third side of the coin comes from a statement by one of my undergraduate professors, whose name I can not recall. “You will never get rich as an engineer, but you will always love your work.” That is no small thing for most of us. Remaining part of the “productive flow” has great charm. There is no shame in it, even if you never have anyone work for you throughout your whole career. And it has one really nice benefit, you can pretty much avoid any involvement in office politics.

WHY ENGINEER? — Chapter 6 — Where Do Ethics Fit In?

When I was a new engineer on the job, I learned a valuable lesson.  Quality Control is not about Quality of Design.  Quality Control is about being assured that the drawings were followed faithfully during the manufacturing and testing phases of producing products.  That was fine with me, and still is.  I don’t actually want a Quality Control Engineer telling me how to design “real” quality into a product.

Ethics, on the other hand, is something your company doesn’t think you have unless they put it in you!  Now that is where I start to have a problem.  It is quite evident that ethics as a subject has been taken over by the legal profession.  It is not about “doing the right thing.”  It is about doing nothing that will put the company in legal trouble.  That’s all it is in their view — case closed.

Well, that may be all it is to a lawyer.  That may be all it is to Management.  That is not what it all is to me.  When you take your first class in ethics that is sponsored by your company, you’ll see what I am talking about.  Ethics is not about keeping your word.  Ethics is not about telling the truth.  Ethics is only about keeping the company out of court.  They won’t come right out and say that to you, but that is exactly what they mean.

It has always grated on my sense of justice that a company has the gall to set itself up as the judge of ethics, as if you had none of your own when you hired on.  And I would guess that working for the government works the same way.

Now, I have no objection to keeping the company on the right side of the law, but to me there is much more to ethics than that.  Understanding the laws that affect your products and business is a good thing, but always adhering to the truth is not heavily stressed in ethics classes.

Once someone lies to me, I will never trust them again.  And lack of trust is erosive.  It wastes time with having to check things that you are told because the teller lacks credibility.  Customers in particular hate being lied to.  Can you blame them?

Unfortunately, I have run into quite a few coworkers who lie to get what they want or to get what they think the company wants.  That usually means putting you down and taking credit for your work or not telling a customer the truth about what you are going to supply, when, and how much it will cost in the end.

Watch your back and the backs of those you trust — and watch the backs of your customers!

WHY ENGINEER? — Chapter 5 — What Influences Decisions

The simplest answer is “everything”.  Maybe the question should really be, “What Should Influence Decisions?”

I suppose the answers depend on who you are, but since this is my blog, I can only offer you my view.  Here is the list as I see it:

  • Safety
  • Performance
  • Expected life
  • Reliability
  • Maintainability
  • Ease of operation
  • Cost

I would include legal requirements, such as government regulations, but they can affect any of the above.  And in that sense, they do affect decisions.  Weight is also a frequent requirement, so is power usage, range of operating conditions, simplicity, etc.  However, these types of requirements usually fall under one or more of the above categories.

What this should tell you is that writing the requirements for any particular design is by no means an easy task.  And getting them right is extremely important.

And what shouldn’t affect decisions, or at least should not significantly compromise a proper design?

  • Politics
  • Personal animosity
  • Ignorance or stupidity on the part of the customer — that may take some polite convincing on your part.

We haven’t discussed schedule.  As they say, “time is money”.  I would caution you against swapping time for any number of real requirements, but don’t hang on to unnecessary requirements.  When you make a promise of time to a customer, put yourself in their shoes.  Quicker is better, as long as you meet all necessary requirements.

One last thing, aesthetics!

So, here is a little story from the past ––

We were in competition for particular device that was to be mounted to the Apollo Space Suit.  And as a part of that competition, all the potential suppliers were required to show prototypes of their designs to NASA.  We all complied, but there was one thing that our company did that a competitor did not do.  We paid all of our attention to performance and none to aesthetics — even in how we presented our design that day.  Our man on the scene said that he placed our fully compliant design on the table for NASA to see.  Ours was not bright and shiny, nor was it colored in anyway.  It simply worked as ordered.  Right after our man placed our device down, the competitor brought out a Tensor light and placed in on the table.  Then he put down a piece of black velvet.  And then he put down their design on the velvet — all shiny and color anodized.  And then he turned on the light.  The only thing their design lacked was compliance to the design requirements — not a small thing one would think.  And what went through the mind of our man?  “We are going to lose.” And so we did.

Not sure what to do with this imformation…

Why Engineer? Chapter 4 — Research, Development, and Design

This is not a big subject, but it is worth discussing.

Generally speaking, the categories are pretty much as given below:

  1. Research – Research is the type of work that involves figuring out how something works, what laws or rules it follows.  It may or may not be pointed at a specific final application. And it may be that several separate areas of research ultimately underpin the development and design of a product.  The research may or may not be original.  Indeed it may simply be a matter of finding the research of others and cataloging it for future use.
  2. Development – Development is an early stage of design in that you take what you learned from your own research and/or someone else’s research and you develop a method(s) to put the knowledge to a practical use.  Development bridges the gap between research and the design of the final product.  It is the application of the knowledge gained in research to a practical objective.  It can be simply one approach to the design or a series of approaches to the design.  And part of what is being developed is the specification(s) of what is desired in the final design in terms of performance, life, maintainability, and price.  In this case, performance is really all encompassing.  It is not just how well the design accomplishes its mission, but how easy it is to use, what resources it expends, and possibly some aesthetic issues.
  1. Design – In a final sense, the design is what defines the final desired product.  The word design will show up during the development phase, but I use it here to designate the final design.  The final design will probably go through rigid test and evaluation to assure that it meets its by now firm requirements.  Failures may require backing up into the development phase to some degree in order to solve the problem(s).  Once those issues are resolved, the final design will continue to be tested at some level to be sure of the manufacturing and materials that go into the final product.  Those “acceptance tests or inspections” may vary over the life of production, but their objective is only to assure the quality of the final product.  They are not meant to be a test of the design definition.

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.

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