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Focus on a Career Engineer

chapter five
College Years

Charlottesville, the home of our chosen university, was a totally different environment for us. A small rural town of the old south, on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it was surrounded by beautiful large estates and farms. The University had been founded and largely designed by Thomas Jefferson whose home, Monticello, was at the top of the last hill east of Charlottesville. When Frank and I entered in 1927, the University had about 2,300 students, all male except for a small nursing school and about a dozen advanced-credit and graduate student females. The main campus was the same as when Jefferson designed it in 1812, with a long wide lawn and the Rotunda (the library) at one end, open-walk colonnades on each side and Cabell Hall at the other end. Opening onto the colonnades were one-story dormitory rooms known as East and West Lawn. Two more rows of similar dormitory rooms, called the East and West Range, paralleled the Lawn rooms. Off at one end, just beyond the Law School, was a separate set of several small dormitory buildings, one and two story, called Dawson’s Row. Nearby was a. long row-building which had once been slave quarters. The University had a well-regarded Medical School and hospital, to the east of the campus.

The dormitory rooms could accommodate only about 400 students and were in great demand, particularly the Lawn rooms. Most students lived in boarding houses and fraternities. Frank Cowan and I were eager for campus life and applied for dormitory space; we were assigned to a room on Dawson’s Row. We couldn’t know this, but the location was, socially, a faux pas, in that freshmen who lived there were ignored by fraternity “rushing.” Although our pride was hurt a little, we both knew we weren’t going to join a fraternity (p. 17) anyway, so it didn’t really matter. All these dormitory rooms were part of Jefferson’s original design, and each had a fireplace. However, a hot-water heating system and radiators had been installed, and each room had a wash basin with running water. Showers and toilet facilities were separate and one had to walk outdoors to reach them, although the colonnades on the Lawn and Range rooms gave shelter from the rain.

Charlottesville was served by two railroads, the Chesapeake and Ohio, and the Southern. From Newark, if one used the Pennsylvania Railroad to Washington, it was possible to change to the Southern at the Union Station. If one used the Baltimore and Ohio from New Jersey, it connected with the Chesapeake and Ohio in Washington. Our train trip was already a great adventure for us. When we reached Charlottesville, we entered a new world of a white society totally segregated from an equally numerous and servile society of blacks. Because neither of us had encountered blacks at home, it was easy to accept this milieu as a very different, but normal, organization of society.

Compared with the other first-year students at U. Va., Frank Cowan and I were relatively mature and sophisticated. Furthermore, because it was our own, hard-earned money, we were both resolved not to waste any of it by failing to absorb every bit of knowledge the University had to offer. Our initial encounter with the faculty was very encouraging. When we asked the head of the Physics Department, Prof. [Llewellyn G.] Hoxton, for special permission to take the basic course (not ordinarily permitted for freshmen), and he learned of our background, he insisted that we go directly into more advanced courses. Thus, in our three years, we took only physics courses which included advanced students and graduate students. After our successful first year, we applied for, and were given advanced credit for the basic course, which helped to meet (p. 18) our degree requirements. In mathematics, we were placed in a special experimental course which used matrix algebra, so did not duplicate anything we had taken at Bell; our class had only four students and we had very direct personal contact with the professor, who taught only advanced and graduate courses and was one of the more brilliant men there.

Virginia marked by the decimal system, with 75 as passing, and a grade average of 85 qualified one for the Dean’s List. Anyone on the Dean’s List was not required to attend class and was permitted to take extra courses over and above the standard of five 3-hour courses. Frank and I always qualified, but seldom took advantage of the first of these privileges; it seemed obvious to us that, if one didn’t attend class, one wasn’t likely to remain on the Dean’s List. The only course in which I attended almost no classes was my second-year mathematics course, Calculus, of which more later.

The second term started after Christmas vacation. I brought back with me enough radio gear to set up an amateur station. I obtained a third-district license, 3ASE, and put up an 80-meter antenna (3.7 MHz.). One objective was to have a low-cost way to communicate with my friends in New Jersey, particularly George Elston, who kept his 2CRD station in operation. In this way, I could have messages relayed promptly; it was also an outlet to expand my contacts outside the University community. However, it was the last year of amateur radio for me; I never went “on the air” again after that first half of 1928.

Early in July, 1928, I received a letter from Professor Hoxton stating that the DuPont family had donated a large sum for scholarships and that he had recommended me for a grant of $400 for the coming year, with almost no strings attached. He did ask that I help him from time to time to set up (p. 19) demonstrations for his classes, pointing out that it wouldn’t take much time and would be very interesting work as well. An additional inducement for both Frank and me to return to U. Va. was the realization that, with our high grades and permission to add courses, we could finish degree requirements in three years, saving one whole year’s costs. The DuPont grant was a life-saver because I fully expected to save an equal amount with summer work; I hoped to borrow the rest of what I might need from my family. Frank, who had not indicated as great a need, was not so fortunate and was given a smaller stipend which involved a formal assistantship in the Physics Department.

The summer of 1928 at E. T. Cunningham was interesting from a technical point of view. As I indicated, at Bell, I had built a beat-frequency oscillator for low frequencies. Cunningham badly needed an audio signal generator for the full frequency range, 30-10,000 Hz, and asked me to design and build one. One of the engineers, Max Stinchfield, had worked almost a year on the problem, but had run into difficulties. I started from scratch, again using beat-frequency principles and, before the summer was over, had succeeded. My equipment remained in use by the Cunningham engineers as late as 1932 when it was finally replaced by commercially available apparatus. Because Stinchfield was an experienced engineer, a college graduate and about five years my senior, the project was a feather in my cap that established my reputation at Cunningham.

In my second year at U. Va. I took the Calculus course mentioned earlier. Although I had taken Calculus at Bell, the subject was reputed to be the most difficult in the liberal arts curriculum. Engineers, who were required to take it, were given an additional six hours per week to master it, whereas, in the College, it was a 3-hour course.. To make sure that I knew the subject well, I (p. 20) registered for it. After a few weeks, I realized that my Bell course had been sufficient; when the professor said that his grades would be based entirely on the final exam, I stopped going to class (my privilege for being on the Dean’s List). By the second trimester, I was taking seven courses and it was a great help not to have to attend one of them. However, at exam time, I did study hard to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten anything. Because my Calculus grades for the three terms were 95, 90, and 100, there’s little doubt that my decisions were the right ones. In contrast, one of the alleged “easy” courses which I took to fill up my schedule was Biblical History. The professor gave a short quiz every week; half the final grade was to be based on these quizzes. The result was that I didn’t dare miss a class even though the subject was of minor interest to me.

Although my physics courses were of great importance, there was another subject which really confirmed that liberal arts had been the correct choice for me. I refer to a philosophy course, Ethics, which was among my second-year choices. I had long been a confirmed skeptic about the value of religion and a nonbeliever in any supernatural aspects of it. The Ethics course showed me that there was a rational basis for morality and that the best religious teachings were unnecessary justifications, on mystical grounds, for moral conduct.

I had always been a voluminous reader; my second year in college increased my reading even more. The first-year English course had introduced me to the great masters of prose and poetry. I think I averaged at least three books per week over and above any required by my courses. The reading was an advantage in improving my ability to answer essay-type exam questions in a scholarly way, and it also broadened my perspectives in many areas not covered by formal courses. Once again, the (p. 21) day-school, liberal-arts choice turned out to be correct; no night-school engineering program would have permitted such forays into new and strange fields.

In my first year at college, I had taken French, and my difficulty with a foreign language had led to the lowest grade in my entire college career—85 for one term (the other two term grades were 90 and 92). Thus, in my second year, it was with great trepidation that I took German, which was even more important for a scientist. However, when the German professor heard my accent and my rudimentary vocabulary (based on my grandmother’s early teachings), I became a model student. The language came easily to me; the irregularities that others had to learn were quite natural for me. The results were several: good grades and, the following year, I was recommended as a tutor—a very lucrative sideline.

At the end of my second year, it was clear that one more year would permit me to graduate with my Physics and Mathematics major. The DuPont scholarships had now been formally announced; I was granted only $200 free and clear, so I took an assistantship in Physics for another $200. Frank Cowan had already done this, so I knew it would not be too great a burden. In early June, I left Charlottesville with the knowledge that there was enough funding for another year.

I rejoined E. T. Cunningham for the summer of 1929. I don’t remember any specific project that summer which compared in importance to my 1928 one, but there was plenty to do, as the radio business was booming. It was in September of that year that RCA stock hit its all-time high of over $500.

My final year at Virginia started with another selection of courses which were mostly important to (p. 22) me, namely a third year of mathematics and of physics, and another year of German. The remainder were selected to fit the open periods which were left. I would have liked to take chemistry or biology, but each required nine hours of laboratory work, far beyond what I could fit in. One of my selections was an English course which covered one term of Shakespeare, a second of 18th century prose, and a third of 18th century poetry. It was a happy choice; my wide reading was expanded even more. One incident remains vivid in memory. In cramming for the final exam on 18th century prose, I read extensively from many books of criticism trying to become as well prepared as anyone could be. All this brain charge was discharged into the “blue book” we used for exams. When our grades were announced, the professor said he did not believe an examination grade of 100 was possible in an essay-type exam, and he had never before given such a grade. However, he said, he had one “blue book” which was so close to perfection that he had no choice but to give it 100. He then announced my name. Another course which I enjoyed was Music Appreciation; I was an enthusiastic lover of Dixieland jazz and popular music; while the exposure to the musical classics did not immediately convert me, the conversion did take place a few years later, inspired by that course.

One of the advantages of working in radio was that I made myself an electronic phonograph which was much superior to the usual mechanical portable phono owned by those college students who could afford one. Charlottesville had a record store with a basement area resembling a coal bin but full of used popular and jazz records, dumped in a big pile. They sold for only a dime each. Frank Cowan and I spent hours, there picking out records of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Fletcher Henderson, early Louis Armstrong, and Red Nichols, plus some Paul Whiteman, Leo Reissman, Gene Goldkette and the (p. 23) very popular tenor, Gene Austin. With a very modest investment of money, I had a superior collection and my room became a popular gathering place on those evenings when we didn’t need to study—mostly Saturday nights. There was no local radio station; distant ones could only be heard at night, and then very poorly. I remember that news of the October 1929 stock market crash came to me first via a letter from Frank Cowan’s father, but it didn’t seem all that important to me at the time. By 1932, everyone appreciated the import of the event when it could be seen as the start of the Great Depression.

In the spring of 1930 we started our last term and my money was running out. I had some help from tutoring German, but expenses for mid-term trips home, increasing food bills and costs arising from the upcoming graduation all made the final year the most expensive of the three. My parents had sent me a little money from time to time but I had to ask for even more, which I expected to pay back. In all, my family help over the college years probably amounted to $300 or so. I hope that my excellent scholastic record represented partial compensation because, as events turned out in the 1930’s, I was not able to return the money. One of the Physics professors urged me to continue in graduate school and offered to get me a Fellowship. However, after three years of living at a minimum standard, I could not see myself continuing for three more, especially since I had a job waiting for me with a good salary, should I choose to take it.

About two weeks before the term end, both Frank and I received the exciting news that we had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In retrospect, it should not have been a surprise because I had a grade average of 94 for three years, which had to be close to a top, and Frank’s was nearly as good, at 92. Nevertheless, neither of us had given much (p. 24) thought to the possible reward, so the letters we received were cause for celebration. Frank, who had never taken a drink in his life, joined me in downing a substantial amount of corn whiskey and experienced his first alcoholic high. He liked it and that was the end of his abstinence.

My father, brother, and mother drove down for the graduation and were duly impressed with the ceremony which was held in the Greek amphitheater, out-of-doors, after a long processional down the full length of the Lawn. Thus, with my B.Sc. degree, I left behind my original classmates (Class of ‘31) and became a member of the Class of ‘30.

Frank and I returned to New Jersey, he to go back with Bell and I expecting to rejoin E. T. Cunningham where I had been offered a raise to $175 per month. However, before I finally accepted, I decided to explore another opportunity. A friend had told me that RCA had just taken over manufacture of radio receiving tubes from GE and Westinghouse. The new RCA operation was to be located at the former GE Lamp Works, in Harrison, N.J., just across the river from Newark and an easy commute for me. This had appeal because it would give me an opportunity to get directly involved in tube design and manufacture, rather than merely in applications work. Also, the location was an advantage. I applied at the Harrison plant, now known as the RCA Radiotron Company, and was offered a job as development engineer at $150 per month. The lower pay was a disappointment, but I decided to accept in spite of it. What I didn’t know was that E. T. Cunningham had already privately sold control of his company to RCA; in 1932, the entire Cunningham organization was transferred to RCA, Harrison. Thus, no matter which job I had taken, I’d have ended in the same place. (p. 25)

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