First-Hand:Diversity in Engineering Applications, From Oncology to Radio Guidance Systems
Submitted by H. R. Weiss
I arrived in the United States in 1940, a refugee from Nazi Germany. A year later, my parents and I moved to Massachusetts; I was a little disappointed because, living in New York, I had hoped to study engineering at the night school of NYU or the City College. At that time, there was no way to receive a Bachelor of Science in engineering going to night school in Massachusetts. (One could get a master's if one had a bachelor's, but that didn't apply to me.)
A refugee committee informed me that someone was willing to sponsor my education. However, when I said I wanted to be an electrical engineer, they replied that they had rather thought in terms of an automobile mechanic or body repairman. Then it was suggested that, if I really wanted to study engineering, I could do so at the Lowell Institute School, a two year technical evening school at MIT which was free. This decision to shortcut my education must have eventually cost me many years of intensive study, but I was too inexperienced to see the final outcome.
Upon graduation from Lowell Institute School, I was given a job at MIT's High Voltage Research Laboratory. The lab did research in million-volt Van De Graff generators and the Xray tubes to go with them. The research was mainly for the treatment of malignancies with, what was at that time, the best radiation equipment for that purpose. I was a technician, later on promoted to D.I.C. (Division of Industrial Collaboration) staff member. The highlight of my experience was helping design a two million volt generator which I eventually helped install in Philadelphia's Oncologic Hospital together with my friend, Charlie Goldie.
While I was happy with my work and liked the collegiate atmosphere of the laboratory, I soon began to realize my technical shortcomings as I compared my knowledge with that of Charlie, an MS from MIT or Bob Cloud, another MS or Dr. Trump, a D.SC. The result of my feeling inferior caused me to seek employment with Raytheon, a company made up of engineers, radio amateurs, and former members of the Submarine Signal Corps.
I believe now that I fitted right in with a group of technical people, many of whom lacked a formal engineering education, but I didn't know it then. For instance, my good friend Dennis Picard started as a technician about the same time as I did as an engineer: Dennis's education had been RCA's TV service school (and he was an excellent TV repairman ). He was promoted to be an engineer without more technical education than I soon after I had left the company. Seven years later, he became a manager over the design group that we had belonged to. Eventually, Dennis was promoted to be one of the directors of Raytheon; whether his education had been augmented, I don't know.
My feelings of inferiority continued while working at Raytheon. During an interview with General Electric from Utica, New York, I was promised consideration to study towards a master's degree at Syracuse University if I accepted employment with them. I must state that while working at MIT and Raytheon I had taken many graduate courses at night at Northeastern University (NU) with excellent grades. However, I was told by NU that under no circumstances would they consider granting me any degree regardless of my excellent record. Now, here was Syracuse University willing to give me credit for all these courses and grant me a Master's degree to boot if I took a minimum number of courses.
I started work in Utica and received a Master's degree in Engineering in three years, a result of part time study which General Electric was instrumental in facilitating: they gave me time off to study. The thesis subject was one of my projects at work and they even helped me by typing my thesis.
The highlight of my career at General Electric (GE) was my work for the space program. The group that I worked for built and designed test equipment for their radio guidance system and I had part in that. Several trips to Cape Canaveral and my witness of the first launch of a Venus probe are unforgettable to me. At GE's urging, I published several articles in electronic magazines. GE also showed enormous interest in having their engineers pass the Engineering License test; they gave courses on the subjects to facilitate passing of the exam.
As an engineer, when given an assignment, you are never certain if a solution exists; and if it does, that you are the proper person to come up with that solution; and, even if you are that person, you are never sure that your boss won't change his mind and give the job to someone else in midstream.
I never had the opportunity to go into management, although I believe, that had I stayed with GE in Utica rather than move to Valley Forge (where I was the new kid on the block) it would have happened. I had always hoped to be a manager over an engineering group, knowing my strong points in that field, but, maybe others saw me in a different light.