February 1963 Popular ElectronicsTable of Contents
People old and young enjoy waxing nostalgic about and learning some of the history of early electronics. Popular Electronics was published from October 1954 through April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged. See all articles from Popular Electronics.
This story from a 1963 edition of Popular Electronics proves that my ongoing effort to point out that the sometimes harmless, sometimes harmful tensions between engineers and technicians is not a recent development. I have told of my own witnessing of engineer vs. technician pi**ing contests stretching back into the early 1980s during my first job as an electronics technician at Westinghouse Electric. Rather than joining the fray, I appreciated the abilities of engineers to provide, typically but with some exceptions, a good combination of academic and real-world experience. Being a technician myself at the time, I also recognized a tech's typically much closer association with hands-on experiences building, operating, and troubleshooting electronic equipment. I was going to college at night working on earning my BSEE, so I was determined to benefit from the strong points of both groups. Having taken both technician level and engineering level classes in subjects like circuit system analysis, I knew of the much higher level of mathematics needed to successfully pass engineering classes. I witnessed many people who were also current or former technicians flunk out of engineering school due to an inability to grasp the concepts. I also have seen degreed engineers who could not troubleshoot a problem in production to save their lives. Yes, they got their circuits working during the design and qualification process, but were lost when attempting to isolate a problem once their "baby" was integrated into a higher assembly. Still, at the risk of invoking the wrath of my fellow technicians, I have always maintained that in general, when necessary, there is a greater chance that an engineer can perform both an engineer's and a technician's function rather than vice versa.
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When I punched in for the first time at Flashover Electronics, I had the same kind of butterflies in my stomach that most people have when they start a new job. I was confident of my abilities as a technician, of course, but I was still a little scared about having to work on a 25-kilowatt "auto-tuned" transmitter.
While I waited at my workbench, I saw a small, thin man with straight, black hair and dark "out-of-this-world" eyes dash from a nearby office. He glanced nervously in my direction and then sped straight up to me.
"You're the new technician, Orville Watson, aren't you?" he queried.
"Yes, I am," I returned.
He extended a firm hand and introduced himself as Frank Flashover, company president and chief engineer.
"I'm sorry I couldn't interview you before you were hired," he mumbled hastily, "but my business manager told me that you had the best qualifications of any applicant.
"As you can see, Orville," he continued, "this is a small company. We have to expect a lot from our employees. Am I correct in assuming that you can read and understand schematics; that you can wire equipment directly from schematics; that you can solder well; that you can make wire harnesses and harness boards; and that you can troubleshoot all kinds of electronic instruments?"
I gasped for air and was about to open my mouth to answer him, but he continued to outline what he expected of me.
"If you don't already know how, I want you to learn to use all our test equipment. That means oscilloscopes, VTVMs, distortion analyzers, 'Q' meters, SWR indicators, and so on."
"Enough of this," I thought to myself.
"This guy thinks I'm an engineer, too."
"And incidentally, Orville," he went on, "as you can also see, we're a little short of help right now. I hope you won't mind if I ask you to make an occasional metal part. Our machine shop is at the end of the building there, and it has a small lathe, a brake, a shear, and a few drill presses."
I determined to hold my temper until he finished his little speech, because I felt certain that he would also ask me to sweep the floor while I was soldering, or drilling holes, or making harness boards. But luckily for me, an attractive. dark-haired secretary called him back into his office to answer an important phone call.
When he returned, I had decided not to say anything. I was going to play this job by ear.
My first assignment was to help complete the transmitter's antenna-coupling network. Flashover brought me a stack of papers with lots of equations and graphs which had been compiled by a young Ph.D. who was no longer with the company. After six months of calculating, he told me, this physicist couldn't figure out what shape the coils had to be, or to what size they should be cut.
"Mr. Flashover," I said, "may I make a suggestion? I cut the coils for my ham rig by trial and error, and checked their resonant frequency with a grid-dip meter. Couldn't we .... ?"
Flashover smiled at me, a bit surprised but pleased, "You're right, Orville. I don't think it would take you six months to design coils that way."
It didn't. But after I had been on the job for a few weeks, the 25-kw. transmitter developed a stubborn streak and started resisting us in every way,
Nevertheless, Frank persistently solved all the problems that plagued us during the construction of the model. I admired his ability to view a symptom and, if the diagnosis wasn't obvious, to sit down with pencil and paper and mathematically determine the probable cause. One day I complimented him on this ability. He took my words of praise as a matter of fact; however, his reply really stung.
"Well, Orville," he said, "that's the difference between us. You're a technician, and I'm an engineer."
The transmitter was completed almost a month late; but the government didn't seem to mind too much. We figured it would take three days to complete the acceptance tests, if we didn't run into any trouble. However, when the tests were ready to start, we were both very tired and, in addition, Frank was a nervous wreck.
After two days of continuous testing, the transmitter held up well. But Frank was still worried.
"Orville," he said to me, "I don't like the way this machine is behaving. I think it's saving something big for the end. I only hope it doesn't blow up during the final test."
This last test was to be a frequency stability check with the transmitter operating in a large cold chamber held at 0° F. After five minutes of operation, our frequency counter showed a steady downward drift way out of specification limits.
Frank turned pale. He looked at me, and said: "Orville, I knew things were going too smoothly. The a.f.c. circuit in the master oscillator seems to have lost control."
For a while he studied the curves as recorded by the frequency counter, then he nervously reached for his pencil and notebook.
The government inspector and I waited patiently while Frank continued to make calculations. Suddenly Frank stopped writing. He threw his pencil to the floor and buried his face in the palms of his hands.
"There's nothing we can do now," he muttered disgustedly. "It will take a month to redesign the circuit so that it will work reliably."
I listened to him unbelievingly. I couldn't force myself to accept the fact that our a.f.c. circuit which had worked so well for many months before the tests began could be proved inadequate by Frank's calculations.
Rather than hang around and give up, I put on my coat and went into the cold chamber. When I opened the rear door of the transmitter to take a look inside, I noticed the plug which connected power to the crystal oven dangling in mid air. I giggled happily to myself as I plugged the socket into the oven receptacle and closed the transmitter door.
As I came out of the cold chamber, Frank looked up at me. "Did you find anything?" he asked, but only as a matter of routine.
"I think I did," I replied. "Let's wait a few minutes."
It was obvious that Frank had not heard my reply, for he continued to inspect his calculations.
"Look! The frequency is moving back up."
Frank jumped from his chair. "What?
How can it?"
"Well, it is," I replied.
Frank stared at me in amazement.
"Orville, what did you do?"
"I just plugged the power into the crystal oven. We forgot to connect it when we moved the transmitter into the cold chamber."
That evening, at the plant, we celebrated the acceptance of the transmitter model with a small party. Frank was quite proud of me.
"Orville," he said happily as he put his arm around my shoulder, "what made you go into that cold chamber after I had already proved to myself that the a.f.c. circuit couldn't work properly?"
"Well," I answered a wee bit sarcastically, "that's the difference between us. You're an engineer, and I'm a technician."
Posted March 26, 2014