The class he recommended was physics of electricity. I was not too thrilled but willing to take it because I remembered how well I was able to fix radios and how much I enjoyed it. I soon learned the class had nothing to do with fixing radios, but I did like the class and got all A’s on every homework assignment, test, and the final. This was the first time in my life this happened and it was in a class that was a part of a pre-engineering major, electrical engineering. The entire experience made me think. I would have never said I was fond of electricity before, but maybe I did like electricity after all. I was always told I should not go into engineering before, but maybe I could do this. I was not sure where my new found realizations were going to take me, but I was ready to take on another course and do as well. The same semester I took Calculus and made an A. My academic motivation was higher than it had ever been. I did so well that I actually made the Dean’s List for the first time in my three-year college career.
This accomplishment was first told to my parents in a nice letter from the university. Upon receiving the letter, my mother immediately called me and said she thought a mistake was made. I proudly told her it was no mistake and that I was really doing well. I think for the first time in my life my parents thought I might truly accomplish something. I was proud to make them proud. I felt like their sacrifices were finally being rewarded. My mother had taken on a second job to supplement my father’s income so my brother and I could attend college. To this day, I have no idea how they supported all of my expenses, my brother’s expenses outside of his scholarship, and my sister’s expenses. To this day, it all remains a mystery to me, but I have a memory of great appreciation for the entire experience of my parents’ financial sacrifice.
As happy as I was, I was disappointed that I had spent so much of what I felt was wasted time when I could have been on this path all along; however, I accepted that this was the way it was supposed to happen for me. This was the way I was supposed to get to where I needed to be, and I picked up some good friends and experiences along the way. With a new motivation and direction, I began to look into what choices I had. I began researching colleges that had electrical engineering degrees. The University of Idaho did obviously have an Electrical Engineering degree, but I was motivated to search all my options. If I had stayed at the University of Idaho that would have been ok. My college search ended when I found an electronic engineering program at California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) just outside of Los Angeles in Pomona, California. I was attracted to this college because of the huge emphasis on hands-on training. I enjoyed “doing” as I learned. Before I could apply to and be accepted to Cal Poly, I needed to get over one last hurdle. I had to go back to Compton College and get them to change my F’s to WD’s or Withdrawals. At last, I applied and was accepted into Cal Poly.
The electronic engineering program was both very rigorous and structured. It would require me to go three more years as a full-time student to graduate, and that was only if I passed all of my classes and did not have to repeat any. The electronics program was new and a little different than the electrical program in that electronics would teach more about transistors, the new, very small semiconductor devices that were going to replace vacuum tubes; moreover, the electrical program taught more about motors and large power systems. I liked the idea of the new program and dealing with smaller voltages, around five volts instead of 100 volts or more in electrical. I found out that a friend from my high school wrestling team, Jim Hooks, was also attending Cal Poly. Jim and I had a very nice relationship and often worked the many labs together and encouraged each other. Jim’s presence and encouragement were a huge part of why I did so well while at Cal Poly. In three years at Cal Poly, I figure I took 25 labs and wrote over 200 lab reports. There was no doubt I was well prepared for the real world of electronics. There was nothing I feared in electronics, that is, except designing amplifiers.
In the middle of my Cal Poly education, I married a very nice girl named Lynda. She attended my high school but I did not know her at that time. Her brother introduced us later. We have three sons, Mark, Michael, and Brett. Lynda was a very accomplished elementary teacher. She was very supportive of my degree and found a banking job to help our income while she also went to college. I was able to get a job at AeroJet General, first as a tester of electronic torpedoes, the U.S. Navy Mark IV, a computerized self-guided torpedo, and later as an electronics incoming inspector. This inspector job proved to be extremely valuable as it allowed me to learn all about the practical aspects of components and how to test them. Between the two of us going to college and working, we did not see each other much. We were able to find a place for $30 a month, which greatly helped out. My parents had given us $500 for a wedding present, and that was a tremendous help in getting started. We had our first child, Mark, during my last year at Cal Poly, and even though it seemed like we had no time left, it still worked out. I would go to school from 8 am to 4 pm, work from 4 pm to midnight, and when I got home, Mark and I would see each other for a few hours while I did my homework. This became such a routine for Mark that even today as an adult he keeps similar hours.
During my last year at Cal Poly, I needed to take one more elective. It was suggested to me to consider a class in theory of switching systems. I was not too sure what this was, but it sounded interesting, and since I had previously taken a humanities class in logical thinking, and did well, I thought this might complement that type of learning. Well, it turned out to be a very pivotal class in my career. The class actually taught the theory of logic design, which is the foundational knowledge in computer design. At the time, computer design was not taught as a separate class. This class was the beginning of what would become Cal Poly’s future computer design curriculum. Cal Poly taught computer programming but not the actual methods of designing the hardware.
There are two classes that really teach computer design: Computer Architecture and Computer Structures. Both classes go into the organization of a computer. The class I took was mainly a math class that dealt with the arithmetic of computers. I guess it could be said to be a computer design class, but since no other computer design class was taught, I always considered it a math class. Of course, I did not think too deeply about it all then. I needed an elective; I took the class.
If you are asking, well yes, it was a hands-on class. One hour of lecture a week and three hours lab. We designed and built electronic logic circuits. This became the fundamental experience I needed in order to succeed with the F14 microprocessor. This was one of the most enjoyable classes I ever took.
I don’t remember any reaction from my parents, so I wondered about it. I suspect they liked the fact I would be closer to home (about one hour). I have NO idea how they paid for the school and I was so selfish I don’t even remember thinking about it. I learned later my Mom had two jobs and some work at home to support my brother and me. Even today I feel really bad I was so selfish.
I also had a brother, Bill, and a sister, Liz, as I mentioned earlier. For some reason, I just did not communicate with them. There was no problem between us: I guess it was just because communicating was a little more expensive and time-consuming, so I just didn’t take the time.
Graduation day finally came. I remember it well as my father and mother both attended, and I could finally show them that I made it and all of their hard work paid off. I was relieved that I proved I wasn’t a failure. How could I be a failure with an electronic engineering degree? I was proud of my accomplishment, but I learned that education, if truth be told, starts the day you graduate. During this time in history, technology was changing every 1-2 years. That meant as I was earning my degree, at least two changes in technology had occurred. For someone seeking employment in a technology field, this is a huge reality.
This point has to be stressed: technology studies are totally different to any other field of knowledge, mainly because of its continuous acceleration. Thankfully, while I was in my last semester, the engineering college organized career interview days with various companies interested in Cal Poly students. We were in demand because of our hands-on experience. Most, if not all, graduates were offered great jobs. The aerospace industry was rapidly growing. The Vietnam War was escalating. I remember getting three job offers: Westinghouse, working on space designs; Bendix, working with torpedoes; and Garrett AiResearch, working on aircraft design. I actually liked the Westinghouse job best as it was in logic design, and I liked the Garrett job the least as I was told I would be designing amplifiers which I did not like at all.
Garrett wanted me to design amplifiers, a kind of circuitry I never liked. But I accepted the job. I sometimes try to imagine my life if I chose Bendix, or Westinghouse: space was, and still is, the final frontier.
Coincidentally, or maybe it was fate, my brother graduated from Stanford University the week before me and was also interviewing with Garrett as a systems programmer. I always say I took the 6-year college plan and Bill the 4-year college plan. We talked about Garrett, but because the jobs were different and in different divisions, we really didn’t expect to see each other much “if” we were both hired. Though not my first choice, Garrett was very aggressive and consistent in recruiting me, eventually making me a very nice offer. In the end, I decided to take their offer. Bill, in a very independent decision, also decided to work for Garrett. It was nice to know we would be working for the same company, but again, since our work was in different areas, hardware design and software programming, we did not expect to work together. Our work buildings were about 10 miles apart.
The first day I walked into Garrett I was met by the personnel manager, the same as a human resource manager today. His name was Dick Gentry. Dick took me into his office and asked me to sit down. He proceeded to explain some company benefits and had me sign the usual papers. What he did next was the final step that would take me the rest of the way down the path to my destiny, to what my life had already been carved to be. Before I sat down with Dick, life had been nudging me first toward and then down a path that I couldn’t see, but Dick’s next words firmly and finally ended my journey and announced my destiny by revealing my future.
Dick opened up my personal folder and asked, “I see you have taken a computer class?” I was a little shocked because I really didn’t consider it a computer class, and so he had to remind me of the switching theory class. Very nervously I finally said, “Yes.” His next statement worried me even more. He said, “You are the only one in your department to have a formal computer design class.” I had no idea where he was going with this, but I knew one class does not make a computer designer. I could not imagine where his questions were leading since, I was hired to do amplifier design, and I had studied extra the month before just to make sure I could do that! Then, he got up and told me to follow him. He took me downstairs into the basement of the building.
As I remember, this was a huge room full of table areas with equipment and people who were working on everything. It was a very organized but busy place. He walked me over to this very large piece of equipment, took off the top piece, and asked me to look inside. He asked, “Do you know what this is?” It looked like an oversized transmission. I knew because of its size it was not a normal transmission. In addition to being larger than normal, the inside was full of chrome gears, cams, and electronics. A cam is an irregular shape on a shaft. It can be circular or it can be oblong or any shape in between. In a mechanical computer, it is usually based on some mathematical equation.
I knew I was wrong, but without any better ideas, I told him my first guess.
“It looks like a transmission.”
“No,” he said, “it is a flight computer for the F-4 Phantom Jet.” The F-4 Phantom Jet was THE jet flying in the Vietnam War. Included photo is exactly what I was shown.
I remember thinking, “So, what?” At this point, I still didn’t understand how and when we got onto this new topic of conversation. To be quite honest, at this point, I could no longer even identify the topic of conversation.
Then, Dick said, “We want you to work on a special project that will convert this mechanical computer to a 100% electronic computer for a new airplane.”
…Did he just say he wanted me to design an entire computer??