The Early Years
My interest in Engineering and particularly Electrical Engineering started in my youth with influence from my father who was an Electrical Engineer for many companies including Westinghouse and the Griffin Wheel Company. My father fixed anything and everything that broke around the house. We never seemed to get anything new because he would always fix the old one. My father never got rid of the original black and white TV he bought in the early 1950's. Every time it stopped working, he fixed it and as I got older then we fixed it together. Our first color TV was a bunch of mismatched subassemblies from various TVs a friend of his brought home from his work. My father and I assembled the parts together over many months and even built a cabinet for it. That TV had dozens of adjustments we had to tweak to make it work but at least it was a color TV.
I grew up in the H.H. Rockwell House designed by Tallmadge & Watson and built in 1910. I helped my father rewire the whole house which means pulling out all the old rubber wire that was falling apart and replacing it with new wire. Every outlet and every switch and every light gets reconnected to the new wire. That wasn't bad enough but a few years later they introduced plastic wire and we rewired the house again with this better wire. I also learned plumbing because we replaced all the old water pipes as well. The list of what I learned is quite long. Plastering, painting, roofing, auto repair, furniture refinishing, furnace repair and the list goes on. Though I complained at the time because I wasn't out playing with my friends or later on getting in trouble with my teenaged friends, I really learned a lot from my father and really appreciate all the time I spent with him learning this wide variety of things.
A New Friend
At the start of seventh grade a new kid moved into the neighborhood. His name was Murray. In my mind Murray was a genius. School came easy to him and his knowledge of electronics was vast. We started fixing radios and TVs in the neighborhood. In those days it was pretty easy. Usually a tube would have gone bad. My dad had a tube tester so we would test all the tubes and replace any bad ones. Murray and I spent the next few years designing and building all sorts of electronic circuits.
My First Job
The summer of 1969 leading to my junior year of high school, my friend Murray and I got a job working for Ampex Corporation. They were installing phase two of a prototype retrieval system in our high school. Starting in the fall we spent all our free time there helping to keep the system up and running. We learned from the system engineer Chuck who ran the system. Our knowledge of electronics came in handy as we started to make modifications to the system so it would be easier to maintain. In the fall of 1970 with phase three being debugged, this article in the local "Oak Leaves" came out. I like the "two young geniuses" quote at the end of the article.
What is a "Retrieval System"? Well today it would be a simple website, but in the late 1960s, students who wanted to listen to language tapes had to go to a special language arts room that had tables filled with individual reel-to-reel tape recorders. You signed out a reel of ¼ inch tape and sat down with headphones to listen to the tape. If someone else had the tape you wanted, you were out of luck. Hector Otero who was a foreign language teacher at the school along with Ted Johnston had secured a $1.5M grant ($9.5M in today's dollars) for Ampex to invent and produce this new system. Their idea was to have a set of master tapes that could be duplicated at high speed within 20 seconds and give the student a copy of that lesson. Instead of a tape recorder in front of the student, the student could sit in the library with a headset and a keypad interface in front of them. They keyed in a lesson number and behind the scenes a computerized system would make a copy of the lesson and provide it to the student. The student could pause the copy and play it at their own pace. Phase three added still pictures to go along with the lesson. This system would include all subjects, not just languages. The system stored some 300 lessons.
Some links on the subject include A Random Access Audio Retrieval System by Maynard J. Kuljian and The School and Technology by Ted Johnson and Hector Otero.
There is not a lot for me to say about college. I picked Illinois Institute of Technology mostly because it was within commuting distance. Murray picked it as well and I assume for much better reasons. The problem with saying your college was IIT was that there is a well known ITT Technical Institute which is a career college with dozens of locations and they advertise on late night TV. Or someone would ask is it like MIT and I would say, yeah but not as good. Besides the core courses that were an important foundation, I found most the courses in electronics and programming to be a repeat of what I had learned to date in the real world. In my first programming class the teacher had a contest on who could write the smallest program to accomplish a particular task. Now as we all know, the smallest program is rarely the best if it is hard to understand but this teacher didn't care. Well my program had one less instruction than the teacher's. Yeah I learned a lot in that class.
One summer I worked at Bell Labs in Naperville, Il in the Program Administration Group (PAG). They were in charge of keeping the configurations of the software for the Electronic Switching Systems (ESS) for the new computer controlled telephone offices.
The next summer I worked at General American (GATX) installing a system to automate the sorting of first class mail in Cincinnati Ohio and Milwaukee Wisconsin. This was interesting and I learned about factory automation.
The next summer a job at EDAX International in Prairie View, Il assembling their "Energy Dispersive Xray Analyzers. I learned how not to build complicated electronic systems. First everything was hand wired so there were lots of mistakes per unit. Next the system had about 6 subassemblies but the systems were assembled as a complete unit and then tested. It took over a week of debugging to get one unit to work. I wondered why each subassembly wasn't tested by itself and then assembled into whole unit. That would have saved a lot of time debugging the system.
My first real job after college was working for Logicon in Fairfax, Virginia but assigned to a site in Forest Park, Illinois outside of Chicago which was near where I lived at the time. After a few months my friend Bill came to work there as well. Bill and I would work together at various jobs over the next 33 years. My boss was John Kreider and I learned a lot about business from him.
So this job was originally planned to install this seven computer system that ran a 12 acre third class mail sorting facility called a Bulk Mail Center (BMC). The post office was building 21 BMCs around the US. The New York and this "Chicago" site were the two prototypes and the 19 others were to be all the same. There is a long story here but since this was the prototype there were hardware design flaws and the software didn't work. The home office was too busy finishing the 19 copies and we were basically on our own to make it work. I also think the home office was setting up my boss to fail. The joke would ultimately be on them.
So how great an opportunity this was! This was the best job I ever had and I learned the most here. I spent about 30% of the time doing electronics and 70% doing programming over 3 years. Logicon had some of the best programmers I have ever worked with. Those brief encounters back in the home office taught me a lot. The techniques I learned there I still use today.
Logicon: I Learn the Game of Chicken
During the commissioning of the system, there would be a series of what were called the "8 hour tests" where each subsystem was tested for 8 hours straight without stopping. They always started on a Monday at 8:00 am and all the subcontractors involved showed up. Bill and I had worked for weeks on getting ready and all weekend. When Monday morning at 8:00 am came Bill and I had been at work for 24 hours since Sunday morning. We were NOT ready and my boss, John knew it. Actually I think the other contractors knew it as well. We all stood there with John saying that we were ready and let's start the test. We were testing the induction device that was a series of 7 belts that allowed a parcel to move up to a keyer station where an operator would enter its zip code and then the parcel moved up and finally the parcel was accelerated at high speed into a moving series of trays. So I'm standing there thinking the software isn't fully debugged and would only partly work. My boss is standing there smiling ear to ear. They turn on the induction unit and here comes the test parcel. We are so screwed. I turned away, I couldn't watch this. Well something with the induction unit went wrong and they restarted it to try again. Well after about 20 minutes of playing around it turned out the induction subcontractor system wasn't ready either. Now the subcontractor that fails the test is charged a penalty. Since they could not get to our part, we weren't charged with a penalty. My boss starts swearing loudly saying that we are being held up and turns to me and smiles. That bought us another week. I remember John doing this many more times as the project when on. Each time my fingers were crossed hoping someone else would fail before the testing got to us. We only got caught once.
Logicon: A Flash of Enlightenment
The BMC was open for limited processing as all the bugs were worked out. We were told that at startup it wasn't uncommon that 10% of the parcels would be miskeyed, but after a few weeks the number would drop to under 1%. All parcels were double checked by hand before they were loaded on the truck during this time. If a parcel showed up at the wrong place it was sent back into the system. This was called a miskeyed parcel. Things were not going well and the facility was running between 20% and 30% miskeys. We blamed the operators and they blamed our computer system. We ran a test with supervisors keying in parcels one at a time and every package went to the correct place. So this sure seemed like the proof that the problem was somehow the operators.
So I'm looking at this complicated software subsystem that handles the input from the keyboard and that operates a series of 60 or so 7 belt induction units. During our nightly test time I stop the software and with a debugger look at all the variables. Something didn't look right. The parcels represented in the computer didn't match the real world. Over a number of days of this I finally decide to try to rewrite this software. It takes about two weeks and going to try to see if I can make it better. In the mean time parcels are being sorted and people are still arguing as who is at fault. The approach I take will not sound revolutionary, but in fact is and will be used many years later at Disney. The idea is rather than allow for many possible ways a parcel can flow from belt to belt as the current system did, I created the one proper way parcels would move. For example, a parcel must reach the next belt before the next parcel reaches the current belt. It was my conjecture that sometimes if the reverse happened the old software got confused as to which parcel was which. Any deviation to this exact sequence would result in a shutdown with a message as to what went wrong and the operator would have to take the parcels off the 7 belts and restart the unit.
So it's the morning of trying this new version. Induction units are shutting down everywhere. Fewer parcels are going thru. Maintenance men are complaining about the shut downs. I say start looking for problems with the units based on the error messages. As the day progresses there are fewer shutdowns and more parcels are being sorted. In the morning I attended the morning meeting where yesterday numbers are posted. The miskey rate is down to around 7% from the high twenties the day before. Oops I think. Do they understand that the old software was the cause? The software now would not tolerant hardware that wasn't doing what it was suppose to and the system was working better for it. In later years someone at Disney would name this method the "One Safe Way Down the Mountain".
The project ended and I didn't want to move to Fairfax Virginia so I left Logicon.
Sir Godfrey Hounsfield working for EMI Medical was the inventor of the CAT scanner. Known as CT (computed tomography) or CAT (computed axial tomography) the scanner can recreate a slice at a time of what is inside your body. The math to do this is pretty exciting and in the 1970's with the fastest computers available it took some 40 seconds to create a single slice. Today it is done in milliseconds.
Their headquarters were in England but had an engineering office in Northbrook, Il. I hired in as an Electrical Engineer but quickly got bored with the lack of work there. At night I would stay at work writing programs. Part of the CAT scanner required super fast and hard to write microcode which was a series of 56 bit instructions coded by hand. I wrote an assembler for the microcode and one night the head of the software department came by and asked what I was doing. I showed him and a few weeks later I was working as a programmer. They paid programmer more by the way.
I learned how to write microcode and write software to run the absolute fastest. This included devising ways to approximate trig functions to save processing time. I also learned again things not to do. This division was suppose to be building the company's latest CT7000 scanner but when they missed the deadline, downsizing started and I decided to leave.
Barrett Engineering was a really small 10-20 person company run by Mike Barrett. He had a good business in the Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) business and decided to branch out and add computer control to his business. Barrett was actually one of the early companies in the energy management business that were trying with computers to save their customers money on energy costs. Now remember this is 1978. I was hired to run a department of what would become 4 programmers. We were tasked to write an energy management system for one of his clients. The contract was already signed when I hired on and the due date was a few months away. The software was written from scratch in assembly language on Data General micro and mini computers. Working night and day we wrote 90% of the code in a few months but the company ran out of money and when they could not pay us anymore I decided to leave.
One of my best stories about computer programming comes from working at Barrett Engineering. When I was hired Mike the owner and his VP of engineering Bob told me that they knew the algorithms required to save the clients money on energy consumption. For example, they could decide based on the temperature and humidity whether it took less energy to cool the inside air as normal or to open the outside air dampers and use air from outside. This sounded good to me. A thermodynamics problem which was one of my pass/fail classes in college so not my best subject. So all the software was written and all I need was these secret formulas, the intellectual property of Barrett Engineering. So I'm ready for the formula and Mike and I are having a discussion that isn't going well. He is not understanding what I'm asking. After a while he exclaims, "Just tell the computer to pick the inside or outside air whichever needs the least energy to cool!". What I came to realize was he didn't know the answer and he thought that a computer was this all knowing machine and all I needed to do was to ask the computer for the answer.
Walt Disney Productions
So Darlette, my girl friend, plans a vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida which is nice because it is January 1979 in Chicago and really cold with huge piles of snow everywhere. We are there in Orlando Florida enjoying our vacation and we take the train around the Magic Kingdom. Disney is building a new attraction called Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Little did I know that I would be opening that attraction 18 months later. So back from vacation I see an ad in Computer World to work in LA at Walt Disney. I apply and get a job as a programmer there. It is March of 1979 and that starts a very long career with Disney.
When I hired on, technically I worked for the Studio, Walt Disney Productions, for the first few years as the software department though physically at Wed Enterprises and worked only on their projects, our business cards and pay checks came from the Studio. WED Enterprises was the division of Walt Disney Productions that created all the ideas and built all the Disney parks. At this time there are two, Disneyland that opened in 1955 and Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom that opened in 1971. Over the years Walt Disney Productions was renamed The Walt Disney Company and WED Enterprises became Walt Disney Imagineering.
WED Enterprises and Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI)
I worked on both Ride and Show Control Systems. The Ride Control Systems were the most interesting for me and so that is what I mostly am writing about. I did software and hardware for many of these systems. What I liked about Disney was some of us were allowed to float between the two disciplines and not be forced to do only one. Even when I lead projects, I still usually either wrote software or designed hardware as well.
My whole 41 year time with Walt Disney Imagineering can be found here.
So I was planning on retiring sometime in 2020 because I had just bought a wonderful house some 60 miles west of WDI. For all 41 years there I had lived within 10 miles of work. I hate to commute. When Covid hit and we were furloughing most of our staff, I decided it was the right time to retire, so I retired May 1st, 2020.
When I hired on in 1979 most of my jobs lasted 1+ years. So I planned on being at Disney for maybe three years or so. Many Imagineers spend decades there. First it is a wonderful place to work, but second each project can last 1 to 3 years depending on what your job is. So you blink and a few years go by. Now after your first project you want at least to do a second one. Well now you could be at 5 years. Well at least one more project. And so it goes and then you are at your 10 year Service Awards dinner and it can keep going.
The Next Chapter
Well right now I am spending time writing about my time with Disney while deciding what I'm going to working on next.