When I graduated from college with a degree in aeronautical engineering, I first had to serve time in the Army after the ROTC commitment. This was in 1960. I had my commission as an artillery officer and was sent to Ft. Sill in Oklahoma for officers basic school. Firing an artillery shell onto the correct target from thousands of meters away is a very mathematical operation involving trigonometry and very precise measurements and calculations. To accurately make those calculations, we used logarithms – five place tables – for multiplication and division. We also had very elaborate firing charts that gave powder and range specifics for each type of gun we fired.

After graduation from that program, I volunteered for an assignment at the school involving some new technology the Army was developing – the use of a computer to design the new firing charts for the Honest John rail-fired, nuclear-tipped rocket. (It sounded like a better position than going into a field unit). I had never even seen a computer after four years of engineering education, but I was now training as a computer programmer using machine language. This huge vacuum-tube-powered machine (which seemingly burned out a tube almost daily) was basically being used to calculate multiple regression analysis from operational firings of the missiles in the field, from which a complete firing table would be generated. My hand-held HP calculator is probably 10,000 times more powerful than that machine of some 50 years ago. Talk about productivity!

Following the Army, I went to work at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft in East Hartford, Conn. I worked in a new office building that housed some 5,000 engineers, all engaged in gas-turbine design and development. When I entered the office complex on my floor (I recall there being three floors), I counted the structural columns to arrive at the correct aisle where my work station was located, then counted rows to get to the correct place. Wow! Imagine hiring a new engineer into that environment today!

Then I spent the next five years working on the 18 inches that comprised the combustion chambers for the JT8 and JT8D engines. There were no combustion modeling or fluid-dynamic modeling programs that could come anywhere close to describing the combustion process inside one of those 6-inch-diameter combustion chambers. For calculations, we had our trusty slide rulers or, for more precise calculations, the mechanical adding machines, Freidens (that could also do square roots if you knew the correct manipulations). But precision calculations were hardly necessary since you had only a qualitative idea of what was going on inside that can in the first place. But by sheer manpower and literally years of trial and error, P&WA built some highly reliable and successful gas turbines.

Next: What was it like to manage in that era?