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Winter 2005 | Volume 20 |  Issue 3

The Electric Guitar And Me

THE LINE ON YOUR SUM mer 2004 cover featuring the electric guitar—“An invention that changed the whole world of music”—reminded me of the line that Life magazine used on its June 28, 1968, cover featuring me and my Jefferson Airplane band mates: “Music that’s hooked the whole vibrating world.” Just a few years earlier I had been immersed in traditional music on the acoustic guitar (as I am now again). I had eschewed all things electric. George Harrison, with a little contemporary help from a friend, changed that.

One day in late 1964 my friend Steve Mann, a brilliant guitar player, came up from Los Angeles to visit me in Santa Clara, where I was finishing college and teaching guitar. He convinced me that one of the sugar cubes he had in his pocket would really open my world as a musician. A couple of hours later we’re in a VW on Highway 101 somewhere near Sunnyvale. A semi pulls up behind us, filling the rear window with its bumper and grille. We’re probably going only 20 miles an hour in the rush-hour traffic, but it scares me. As I contemplate impending death, someone turns on the radio. When the tubes warm up, the first thing I hear is George Harrison’s solo in “She’s a Woman” on his Rickenbacker 12-string. It changed my life. Not only did it get me through that moment, but for the first time since my friend Jack Casady and I had a high school rock ’n’ roll band, the electric guitar became a real instrument again for me. And that prepared me to be open, just a little at first, to Paul Kantner’s suggestion a few months later that I join the rock ’n’ roll band he was forming up in San Francisco.

Jorma Kaukonen

Lost At Sea

BARBARA MORAN’S ARTI cle on the loss and recovery of the H-bomb at Palomares, Spain (“The Day They Lost the H-Bomb—and How They Got It Back,” Fall 2004), brought back memories of another meeting between the submersibles Alvin and Aluminaut , off Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1969.

Alvin was lost at sea in a handling accident in October 1968; an operation was immediately undertaken to recover it. Fall and early winter is no time to work at sea in the North Atlantic, and the operation was terminated without success. But since Alvin was too valuable to leave on the sea floor, plans were made to stage a recovery operation the following summer.

In the spring of 1969 the craft was photographed upright on the bottom at a depth of 5,051 feet, with her hatch open. Because Alvin was too heavy to be lifted by a submersible, the plan was to have another submersible place a toggle bar in her open hatch. The toggle would be tripped, and the submersible would back away, paying out a nylon line. When the submersible reached the surface, the line would be taken to a winch on the support ship, Mizar , and Alvin would be hauled to the surface, secured to pontoons, and towed submerged to shallow water, where she could be lifted aboard a barge. The only submersible that could reach the required depth and carry the line and reel was Aluminaut .

As with any operation in the deep ocean, there were difficulties, false starts, and plans that didn’t quite come together, but on September 1, 1969, with critical help from her old working mate Aluminaut , Alvin was lifted aboard a barge and secured. She went on to a long, outstanding, and invaluable career. How do I know all this? I was the naval officer in the Office of the Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and the on-scene commander of the Alvin recovery.


William I. Milwee

The Stem-cell Debate

JIM QUINN’S “HALL OF FAME Report” in the Fall 2004 issue (“What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You”), objecting to various unscientific practices and policies in our present-day society and advocating greater public involvement by technologists, made some excellent points, especially the one debunking the unreasoning panic over asbestos exposure. He even bravely ventured into the medical-moral minefield of genetic research involving embryonic stem cells, a region where angels fear to tread. Unfortunately, I’m afraid he stepped on a mine there.

The endless debate over when life begins is regrettably fraught with emotion and very short on logic and valid science. To me the issue is simple, though the solution is not. The problem with stem-cell research is not about the stem cells but about how they are obtained. The controversy centers on undifferentiated stem cells obtained from embryos via a process that requires their destruction. The question simply is, Do embryos constitute life? If so, their destruction for purposes of research involves the taking of human life, an unacceptable consequence for most people despite Mr. Quinn’s assertion that such “ethical concerns [are] far outside the mainstream of opinion.” The fact that many of these embryos are artificially created only adds to the moral dilemma.

The process of human gestation is not a sequence of discrete steps, despite the misleading and scientifically unsound medical designation of “trimesters.” The process actually is seamlessly continuous, from zygote to embryo to fetus to birth. The transitional designation between embryo and fetus is based on the equally vague concept of “form” and is considered to occur at about two months. Around that time detectable motion begins and functional organs appear. The fetus is clearly alive, the embryo less clearly so, and zygotal life is physically recognizable as such by most accepted criteria. However, even the point of transition from zygote to embryo is unclear at best.

It can be argued that somewhere along the line life appears. Despite some rather scary philosophical arguments to the contrary, that life is unarguably human, as there is no other appropriate biological designation. The ethical and moral problem arises when one tries to draw the line: after this point it’s a human life; before, it isn’t. I know of no scientifically valid basis for determining the point at which that line should be drawn. Consequently the only safe course, which many of us feel must be followed when dealing with human life, is to draw the line at the point of zygote creation—i.e., conception.

Admittedly this creates a problem for genetic stemcell researchers. However, until there is a valid scientific basis for determining the beginning of human life, it is demeaning and unjustifiable for Mr. Quinn to imply that people, many with scientific and technical backgrounds, are being uninformed and unreasonable when they support a moratorium on embryonic stem-cell research until critical questions concerning the creation and destruction of human embryos are answered.

Progress in the employment of nonembryonic stem cells in genetic research is occurring rapidly and shows great promise. Consequently there appears to be little validity to the strident, often emotional opposition to the current limitations on the investigative use of embryonic stem cells.

Jim Quinn replies: While I respect Mr. Neuhauser’s opinion, every point he makes has been debated repeatedly. People of good will have examined both sides thoroughly and achieved a clear consensus in favor of embryonic stem cell research. I repeat my call for scientifically sophisticated Americans to call for resolutions to public-policy deadlocks.


Alfred J. Neuhauser

The Underground Man

TUNNEL BORING IS A FASCI nating subject, but I was especially interested to see the ultradynamic James S. Robbins featured in your article about it (“The Underground Cutting Edge,” by Fred Hapgood, Fall 2004). My father knew him when they both worked at the Chrysler Corporation during World War II. I met him when my parents took my sister and me to his house to purchase a canary. He was raising canaries, and the whole upstairs of his neat but modest bungalow in Ferndale, Michigan, was filled with cages and cages of canaries.

A few other things about him: He repaired washing machines as a sideline. He owned a gas station. He manufactured seat belts for cars when they were first introduced in the 1950s. He became a pilot and built an airstrip next to his plant.

John T. Mulhall

The Underground Man

I AM SURE THE TUNNEL- boring machine James S. Robbins built in 1953 was inspired by the continuous-mining machines he saw in Illinois coal mines. Continuous mining was introduced into at least three large southern Illinois mines in 1949 and revolutionized underground coal production.

Like tunnel driving, coal mining traditionally involved drilling, blasting, and loading. Inventors dreamed of a machine that could break out the coal and load it in one operation. Although primitive versions appeared as early as 1912, the first commercially successful continuous miner was the Joy 3JCM, introduced in 1949. Its 30-inch-wide cutting head, which rotated parallel to the coal face, had six chains, each bearing 20 replaceable tungsten carbide bits. As coal fell before the bits, gathering arms pushed it onto a conveyor running to the rear of the machine, where shuttle cars transferred it to rail cars or a belt conveyor for transport out of the mine.

The Joy miner was an immediate success, and other companies quickly introduced boring machines, which had two large cutting heads rotating perpendicular to the face. Robbins’s tunnel driver resembles one of them. By the 1970s they had fallen out of favor because of their weight, bulk, and poor maneuverability, and today’s continuous miners are based on the original Joy design.

W. John Nelson

The Underground Man

I THOROUGHLY ENJOYED the article on tunnelboring machines. The concept also aroused interest in the military early on. Gen. Benjamin Butler, commander of the Army of the James, proposed using such a machine to drive a tunnel under Richmond during the Civil War. During World War I sappers of the British Royal Engineers used a tunnel-boring machine to drive a mine underneath the Germans on the Western Front, but it became stuck and had to be abandoned. During the same war Austrian engineers used one to prepare field fortifications. The concept of driving a mine under an enemy may date as far back as the Assyrians in the sixteenth century B.C. , but the North Koreans drove a number of tunnels beneath the demilitarized zone during the Cold War, in preparation for a renewal of the Korean War.


William Schneck

The Underground Man

THANKS TO MR. HAPGOOD for his informative article on tunnel excavators. The ill-fated Hoosac tunnelboring engine of 1851 was actually designed and built by John Souther, of South Boston. Souther built locomotives but was best known for his steam shovels based on the 1836 patent of William S. Otis. Munn & Company were enthusiastic users of Otis excavators, so they turned to Souther for help in building the tunnel machine. It was to cut a bore 24 feet in diameter. Its first test came in the summer of 1852, when it failed to cut a full circle. Repairs were made, but after cutting less than 30 feet, the apparatus was abandoned.


John H. White, Jr.

C.i.t., R.i.p.

JACK KELLY’S FINE ARTI cle about “The Most Perfect Weapon” (Fall 2004) and its inventor, Samuel Colt, reminded me of an incident that has always remained in the back of my mind as an intriguing “what if” or “if only” story. Colt was a controversial figure, and especially so during the immensely successful final 15 years of his relatively short life. Among those who were less than enamored of him were the Hartford city fathers, who tended to dismiss him as a brash upstart, and the Hartford Courant , which apparently enjoyed sniping at him. For his part, Colt viewed them as a pack of ingrates, forever scheming to thwart his aims for his company, its workers, and the city. Their confrontations ultimately reached a point where Colt decided to make a major change in his will that eliminated bequeathing a quarter of his estate for “founding a school for-the education of practical mechanics and engineers.” Since his estate at the time of his death in 1862 amounted to about $15 million, a huge sum at the time, it’s likely that the school, had it come into existence with such extraordinary initial funding, would have become one of the major technological institutions of the country, comparable to MIT or Caltech. One can wonder about what Hartford and the state of Connecticut lost by not having a Colt Institute of Technology in their midst.


Robert H. M. Simon

C.i.t., R.i.p.

THE ARTICLE ABOUT SAM uel Colt was most interesting and informative, but it may have left the impression with some readers that Colt was the first to use the American system of manufacturing, in which all parts were manufactured to be interchangeable, using jigs and fixtures to measure the parts and to help assemble them properly. This meant that the workers did not need to be skilled mechanics. From 1806 to 1809, before Colt was born, Eli Terry used the American system to fulfill his contract to make 4,000 wooden clock movements with faces and hands. No one before had ever approached making the number of clocks that Terry was to make. Previously they’d been built by craftsmen using traditional tools.


Anthony Prasil

The Beanball Machine

THE ARTICLE “POSTFIX: The First Pitching Machine” (by Stephen Eschenbach, Fall 2004) reminded me of my experience just 50 years ago. The Braves had moved from Boston to Milwaukee the year before, and I was on college break and looking for work. I was hired by a group of investors who ran the Eddie Mathews Baseball Bat-a-Way, a recreational facility V where customers could take batting practice. They ordered 20 pitching machines, and the vendor took the money and disappeared but did ship the machines—all in parts. I got the job of assembling the parts into working pitching machines, with no plans of any kind. Three weeks of 16-hour days in a rented garage and we had our first working machine.

They were sensitive beasts, easily going out of adjustment whenever a batter slammed one back into the pitcher’s box. That gave me a job for the summer, managing the Bat-a-Way and keeping the machines working. One problem I never solved was spitballs. When a ball was slightly wet, you entered the batting cage at the risk of your life. This was in the days before widespread adoption of the batting helmet, a necessary adjunct, I think, to a successful pitching machine.

Gerald M. Weinberg

Write It Right

THE ARTICLE “OBJECT Lessons: The Pencil” (by Curt Wohleber, Fall 2004) brought back memory of a long-ago incident. My first job out of college was with a small construction company specializing in installations for the coal industry. My first assignment was to take a design drawing and produce an as-built version. As I was erasing an error, one of the partners noticed and said that young engineers should not be allowed to use erasers. Since he was my boss, I pointed out politely that in my opinion the erasure would cost the company less than having to do the drawing over with the risk of another error. He harrumphed and left.



George E. Sutton

Write It Right

I ENJOYED THE NARRATIVE of the pencil’s evolution. I often wondered as a boy, when I sharpened my pencil with a pocketknife, why the American point was so different from the European point. The American point lasted longer, but most of the time you wrote with a dull point. The shorter European point didn’t last as long, but it encouraged the student to keep a sharp outlook and gave you more exercise keeping it sharp. Anyway, when I produced my pocketknife at a recent school function to sharpen a scorer’s pencil, it was confiscated as a weapon until after the game.


Robert J. Ahner

Another Father Of Gps

IT WAS WITH GREAT INTER est and a feeling of pride that I read the “Hall of Fame Interview” with Bradford W. Parkinson, about the development of the GPS system, in the Fall 2004 issue (“I Had to Sell This to the Air Force, Because the Air Force Didn’t Want It,” interview by Jim Quinn). Although I’ve never had the pleasure of personally meeting Colonel Parkinson, I was part of the engineering team that designed and developed the first rubidium frequency standard, the atomic clock that flew in each satellite to provide the timing accuracy for the system.

Before starting the job, we were told that everything had to fit in a six-inch cube, and that is what we proceeded to do. It must have been one of the highest-density electronic packages produced until then. It got to the point where every wire, its routing, length, position in the bundle, and termination technique, was defined pictorially. It was a real can of worms, but it worked, and as far as I know, most of the original units are still functioning 30 years later.

As an electromechanical design engineer, I had the responsibility for the design of the chassis and the electronic packaging. I consider working on this program the highlight of my 30-plus years with Rockwell. Being able to contribute to a technology that had uses beyond weapons systems was a welcome change from our normal aerospace preoccupations during the Cold War.

Larry F. Bangham

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