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First-Hand:Adversity No Match for Electronics Engineer

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Submitted by Frank T. Luff

My first thoughts about becoming an engineer probably came in 1937 when I was a sophomore in high school in the small farming town of Palmyra, Nebraska. I had built a crystal radio set using the procedures and methods of one of my high school mates. It didn't work. That made me very determined to try again using more reliable methods. I found a book (I think it was called Radio Engineering) that gave step-by-step procedures about how to build a very complicated and fancy looking crystal set. It worked.

I heard the Orson Wells invasion by the Martians on that crystal set. I was quite concerned about it; however, we lived far out in the country, and places like St. Louis and Chicago seemed worlds away to me.

I attended a one room country school house that included grades one through eight and had one teacher. Eighth grade students had to pass a series of tests before they could go on to the high school in town. I hadn't been a very good student and my parents weren't expecting me to pass the tests. But the teacher (the only one for the eight grades) worked with me and I liked her. I not only passed the tests, but I made the county honor roll! The county school teacher, Miss Fender, made a difference in my life.

The high school was geared to teach what farm boys and girls needed to know. Farming was done almost completely by horse drawn machinery in those days. Only simple algebra and general science was taught. I had no high school classes in geometry, trigonometry or physics or chemistry. No foreign language. The country was in a deep depression. My father was forced off the farm and had to work on WPA (Works Progress Administration). There was no hope of going to college; no hope of getting any kind of job when high school was over in 1939. I spent a year in a 666 Camp then joined the Marine Corps when I was old enough. A year later we were at war with Japan.

Jobs for graduating engineers were very scarce in 1948 and 1949. I took the only offer I received. It was from the Rural Electric Administration in Washington, DC. This was a far cry from my radio and radar experience but I was married, with a family, and needed a job.

Four years later my job as a power engineer was abolished and I was assigned to the new Rural Telephone Program. This was a blessing in disguise because my job title was changed to "electronic" engineer which allowed me to pursue other jobs in the electronic engineer category.

Four years later, in 1956, I applied for a job as a radar engineer with the Civil Aeronautics Administration. Because of my previous interest and experience in radar, I got the job and was sent to the CAA RADAR School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. I did very well and, a year later, was promoted to Supervisory Electronic Engineer, GS-13. That was pretty good in those days because the highest GS grade was GS-15.

I had no mentor and no particular role model. I had some good bosses and some bad. Most seemed too much involved in empire building and work place politics. Peer relationships were sometimes good and sometimes bad. The demands of my job and family were always too great to permit participation in IEEE or similar activities.

There were periods (sometimes years) when it seemed the whole world was trying to prevent me from realizing my career potential. In the end, I feel that I made a difference in my field of technology. I worked hard at it. I feel that I came a long way from where I started. However, I could have gone further if I had been able to get a better basic education earlier in life. There were ethical dilemmas during my career. But these were not a big factor. I prided myself in high and unbending ethical standards.

Engineering principles are another matter. By this I mean, many times an engineer has to accept changes in design and/or cost estimates ordered by someone else or find another job. Engineering principles are similar to the academic freedom of a teacher. Both are of great concern to me. I believe this is a problem not only in the engineering and academic fields but throughout the work place in our society.