A couple weeks before I started graduate school at the dear old University of Iowa, I got married. At that point, I knew my new wife and I would be on our own financially. The night of the wedding, we moved into our basement apartment, and I went out the next morning and found a job helping design an FSK communication system for one of the Injun-series satellites under Dr. James Van Allen. In fact, the lab I worked in was exactly four floors under the office of that noted early space explorer.
The University’s EE Department had bestowed an $1,800-per-year Teaching Assistant grant on me previously, so we were on our way to fame and fortune. That job at the Physics Department paid the exalted sum of $1 per hour, the same pay that a student brain surgeon earned in those days.
The second semester, I also got a great job playing New Orleans Jazz on a honky-tonk piano in a large pizza garden/beer joint in town from 8 p.m. until 1:45 a.m., three nights a week. That paid almost $7 an hour. We were rolling in the dough!
Things got even better at the start of my second semester of grad school. I was handing out IBM cards at registration that semester when I saw the Dean of Engineering talking to all the regular EE professors. Each one was shaking their head “no” to him. He finally got down to me, the “low man on the EE totem pole.” He took a different tact with me by asking me if I would like my assistantship doubled.
It turns out that the department had hired a Ph.D. from Turkey to come to teach classes in Electrical Machinery, but at the last minute, that man’s wife’s student visa was cancelled so he decided to return to Turkey. The department had no one to teach DC and AC machinery, two required EE undergraduate core courses.
Now machinery was the unloved child on the EE curriculum, and none of the regular professors wanted a thing to do with those courses. Beggars can’t be choosers, so I agreed to teach those classes. If the Dean of Engineering had checked the records, he would have seen that machinery was the only EE class in which I had ever received a grade of “C.” He probably would not have cared, even if he had checked.
As a result, I was promoted to “three-quarter time instructor” and given a second course that also had a lab to teach. My assistantship was more than doubled to about $400 per month. The other course was called Elements of Applied Electronics, and it had a lab. That course was required for Ph.D. candidates. Now that was funny as hell: I was a first-year EE grad student teaching a bunch of Ph.D. candidates!
I took it upon myself to change the machinery course contents. The first course became DC and AC machines using the previous text by Kingsley and Fitzgerald that taught the student such modern EE knowledge as how to design a motor rotor to minimize slot effects. Somehow, I could not see myself ending a 40-year career someday at Joe’s Motor Shop and Drill and Dredge Co. as a Senior SEE (Slot Effect Engineer).
Thus, the second semester I changed the course name to Energy Conversion and taught such topics as Fuel Cells, Magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), Thermionic Converters, etc. The EE professors didn’t really care what I taught in electrical machinery as long as they didn’t have to have anything to do with it. Learning about MHD really saved my bacon when I had to take my Oral Exam to complete the work for my M.S.E.E. a year later. (To us literary mavens that last statement is known as foreshadowing.)
In the last paragraph, I promised you, the suffering reader, that I would relate how my knowledge of MHD was a blessing when I took my Oral Exam. To begin, the Oral Exam did not have that great of an effect upon satisfying the M.S.E.E. requirements for graduation. First you had to pass an eight-hour written exam, given on a Saturday. That was the toughie! One of the Profs told me that the Oral Exam generally was only significant if that student had done a marginal job on the written exam.
Thus, I wasn’t too worried that afternoon when I went to take my Oral Exam. It was held in one of the regular classrooms and all the EE professors were there. Bill Wade, my graduate study advisor, started the proceedings by asking Dr. Ware if he had any questions for me. He shook his head to the negative, and Dr. Wade went down the line of the other professors and received the same responses. It looked to me like this was going to be easy.
Finally, Dr. Wade asked me a relatively simple question on coding theory. I easily answered this. Dr. Ware then asked me a question about something I had no idea about. I won’t bore you, dear reader, with the topic but it was on an extremely arcane effect to do with electrical transmission lines. All the other professors were just as puzzled about it as me. A great argument arose between the professors.
Dr. Ware finally coaxed me along writing some equations on the black board with the result that the answer to his question was finally unearthed, much to the elucidation of the other professors. I could see now that they were going to have fun at my expense for the rest of the three hours. Then, to my delight, Professor Alton, a non-PhD instructor said to me, “Jim, take as long as you need to tell me all you know about – you guessed it – magnetohydrodynamics.” I was sure he knew nothing at all about the topic and had just seen the word in some technical magazine.
Take all the time you need. I decided I could parrot back the lectures I had recently given on the topic, so I started on the left side of the black board writing equations and telling about their significance. I figured I could fill the rest of the three hours allotted for my Oral. About 10 minutes into my “lecture,” I heard a chair shuffle. Professor Alton left the room. He was soon followed by all of the other professors until my advisor — Dr. Wade — and I were the only two left in the room.
Dr. Wade stood up, told me have fun and erase the blackboard when I was done. He left me alone in the room. Then, Dr. Ware stuck his head back in the door and said, “Jim, your only chance of passing this exam is to be at Smith’s Cafe across the street in less than five minutes to buy coffee for everyone.” I did so and passed the exam. The other Profs were at the café giving Professor Alton what for about screwing up the fun they were intending to have at my discomfort and expense. Thanks, Professor Alton!
I bought the coffee that day and was told I had passed the last hurdle in earning my M.S. I had several job interviews in Southern California where most engineers went in the mid-1960s to grow old. After less than a year in my new job at General Dynamics, I faced another rude awakening. More about that in another paper I must write. More foreshadowing. Stay tuned.