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The Wisdom of the Mentors

By Stephen M. Samuel

“As a mechanical engineer, you are an arranger,” he said. “You may be arranging for 300 degree air to be delivered to a certain place, or you may be arranging for 5 gallons per minute of cooling water to be deposited somewhere, but as an engineer you have to take care of all the details; all the components have to work together to get a task or series of tasks done.” These were inspiring words said to me by one of my favorite engineering professors. His name was William E. Heronomous. He was a large man who exuded a combination of strength and warmth that one can only describe as fatherly. I understood that he had been a military man of some sort – perhaps the Navy. He told the class at one point that his favorite color was battleship grey. I was incredibly fortunate to have him for a senior design class. He gave all us kids his wisdom, and I looked up to him. It was true – we really were learning to be arrangers. Mechanical engineering in many cases is the arranging of all sorts of components. Almost every great mechanically engineered product is the result of a number of components that are in their own way the culmination of thousands of years of human technology. As soon as you take two sheets of anything and screw them together, you are using the fruits of the labor of all the myriads of people who figured out the best angles for the threads, the material science, and the way to make a machine that creates screws at a kajillion per minute so you pay very little for them.

As you arrange the components, these days, it’s easier than ever before. When I was first learning how to design machines, the best resource we had available was a thing called the Thomas Register. It was a huge set of large green and black catalogues that many manufacturers and their products were listed in. You would search page after page of numerous huge books, and when you found a component that you thought you might be able to use, you’d take your rotary phone and call the manufacturer. In those days, not everyone had an answering machine, and sometimes the best way to get in touch with the manufacturers was to send them a letter. In those days, the term snail mail didn’t exist.  It’s difficult to imagine how arduous it was to find the best components when today you can Google components and in many cases download an actual solid model of it that is accurate to the last little fare-thee-well. The models read into most of the major CAD systems, and you can assemble them virtually, check for clearances, perform kinematic studies, and do a great many things that would be difficult to do even in real life.

Now Professor Boothroyd was tough. He was an ex-military man from England who seemed to have a bit of disdain for the happy-go-lucky students that would show up to class wearing sandals. I had him for a class called Statics. On the face of it, it’s a very easy class, because most of what you learn is how to keep things still. How many times did we hear “The sum of all the forces equals zero, the sum of all the moments equals zero.” However, many of the students had a very tough time with the class, because it was being used as a weed-out. The University of Massachusetts in the 80s was a great place, widely known as a party school. As for the engineering, it appeared that they followed the philosophy of letting many people into the engineering program. Then they made the program harder in some ways than it had to be in order to select a much smaller number. The year I took the Statics class from Professor Boothroyd, a full 50 percent of the students failed. I was one of the fortunate ones; I believe I got a B.

The great thing about professor Boothroyd was his ability to show students how to focus on what was important. In statics, it is very important to look closely at the configuration of the various structures that you are analyzing and try to see in advance what portions of that structure have nothing to do with what you’re trying to find out. For example, if you are trying to figure out how large to make an engine mount, there are ways to lump all the complex components together into one “point mass” so your calculations will be that much easier. He also took great care to teach us to look at how things are connected, whether they are pin jointed or cantilevered to see what members could be ignored. The lesson couldn’t be clearer then when you’re trying to figure out how much force is on each member of a truss bridge and whether you have to make the members thicker or not.

One fine night, we Statics students had a mid term scheduled for 6:00PM.  I studied for the test until about 4:00 when I decided to take a short nap. My alarm clock didn’t go off, and I woke up at about 6:15. I panicked, I threw my clothes on, grabbed my knap sac, and ran way down the road to where the test was being held. By the time I arrived, it was already 6:25. In my haste I forgot my calculator. The first professor I encountered was Boothroyd. I threw myself on his mercy and told him that I had woken up late and had forgotten my calculator. I pleaded with him to take a make up exam. He seemed to smile at me, but I soon discovered that it was actually a mean glare as he said, “Young man, just because you’re late, that doesn’t excuse you; you have to take the test anyway. And if you don’t have a calculator,” as he held his fingers up to my face, “just use these.” Without missing a beat, I walked over to professor Heronomous and told him that I didn’t have a calculator. He leant me his and told me not to break it. In the end I did very well on the test that 40 percent of the students failed. As Boothroyd handed back the exams days later he smiled at me. I think he was generally happy that I did well. I think he was trying to teach me to be strong and responsible, just like how a drill sergeant might give his privates a real hard time to toughen them up.  I learned his lesson along with the other one of knowing what to focus on and to eliminate all the things that really don’t matter. The reduced amount of time that I had to take the statics exam didn’t hurt me because it forced me to use the skills that Boothroyd had taught. Thank you Professor Boothroyd, wherever you are.

Professor Umholtz had at least one product on the market that I knew of. I had him for a course on engineering drawings. He was artistic and creative and a very pleasant guy. He also had a patent on a process for forming metal with explosives. He was all about the feeling. Watching him work with a piece of chalk on the board was a learning experience in itself. His whole body seemed to be involved as he drew beautiful shapes. His big lesson was focus. When he drew, it was as if nothing else existed in the universe. The lesson was clear: a good design is facilitated when one can focus as if there was nothing else on earth except the one task at hand.

The greatest mentor I ever had was my father, David F. Samuel. He was an amazingly creative man. He had grown up in a large family in the twenties and thirties when money was scarce. He and his brothers and sister would make their own toys. They would find toys that others discarded and fix them and use them. My father could sketch, paint, carve, do calligraphy, and just about anything else he put his mind to. He built a sailboat, dulcimers, and puppets out of paper mache and a myriad of other things. He was from the generation that didn’t trust art as a way to make money for a family, so he became a teacher and eventually a principal. He was also a captain in the army reserves, so he had great discipline too. When he retired, he decided to become a commercial artist and achieved a respectable level of success. He had some of his painted works in museums in Florida and Baltimore, and I was intensely proud of him when he was living. His main message was to study a thing – do a thing. Basically, he believed that there was nothing that you couldn’t do if you just got the right instruction and committed yourself to getting it done. When I was about 11, he purchased a 5 acre piece of land in New York State with a shack on it. The shack had electricity, but no running water. It had a well with an old-fashioned hand pump and an outhouse.  Before long, we purchased a bunch of home building books, and we built on a huge addition, a Jacuzzi room, and a free-standing workshop. We had to hire someone to put in a septic system and dig a deep well, but other than that we did everything ourselves as we learned it from books and figured it out on our own.

Another extremely powerful mentor in my life has been and is my older brother Mike. Mike is and always was a naturally talented artist. He could do anything. At an early age, his cartoons were professional quality. If anyone needed a cartoon drawn or a poster or even something cool drawn on their sneakers, they wanted Mike to do it. I heard him say early in life “Talent is the will to practice.” I believe the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell puts forth the same message. The book also indicates the importance of opportunity. The most vivid example from this book that I can remember was the one of hockey players in Canada. Malcom noticed that many, if not all, of the best hockey players had birthdays within three months of each other. Upon investigation he concluded that all of these folks had begun to play Hockey from a very early age. Every year, the Canada Hockey league makes a judgment that allows the best of the five year olds to go on to get better coaching and more time on the ice. Well at five, there’s a huge difference if you just turned five or if you’re just about to turn six, so anyone within three months of the cut off has a huge advantage. The hockey league, though they think they are selecting for natural talent, is really selecting for natural talent and age advantage. The point is that the kids who happen to be more talented and older get more time to practice, and it creates an advantage that they carry for the rest of their career.

My brother and I grew up in a time when TV wasn’t very good. There were only a few channels and a few cartoons and long periods of time where there was nothing good on to watch. Mike and I would spend hours drawing and playing games with other kids. We both became successful athletes in our own right and were both considered very creative. Almost everyone reading this article has seen my brother’s work. If you’ve seen the H on the History Channel, the Sears logo, or the Hebrew National logo, you’ve seen the result of Mike’s natural talent and his will to practice his skill incessantly.

I used to be amazed when I started work in the early 80s at the Pratt & Whitney jet engine manufacturing plant in East Hartford, CT. I was extremely fortunate to land the job and even more fortunate that the field of computer aided design was just taking off. Pratt and Whitney in the early 80s was like a college for me with a new influx of college graduates hired in 1983. There was a group of us, young and single, and we used to go to happy hour on Friday afternoons. At that time, CAD systems were ultra expensive. I was on the team at Pratt that was instrumental in finding and evaluating new CAD systems and helping to get them accepted in the general population. At an early age I was given the rare opportunity to learn these systems and was on the ground floor so to speak. Later on I parlayed my skills and knowledge into a successful design consulting business of my own and have been running it for 16 fun and work filled years. I can say that Pratt and Whitney and the opportunity that I was lucky enough to gain were two of my most influential mentors.

Good mentors are hard to come by. Somehow, I ended up with enough of them to last me a lifetime, and I find myself extremely lucky. The one thing I can think of to give back to my mentors is to be just as good a mentor to someone else. And I hope that all of you can find it in you to appreciate the mentors you’ve got and be a great mentor to some other kid just looking to make a place for him or herself in the world.

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