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Albert Maywood Courtright II

Reminiscences of Maywood Courtright

General Electric's Apprentice School in Ft. Wayne, Indiana

Ft. Wayne was only about 30 miles west of Paulding, just across the Indiana line. In 1916, it was a town of about 60,000 and had several manufacturing plants, the largest of which was probably the General Electric plant out on Broadway. My father discovered somehow that G.E. had an apprentice program for machinists, toolmakers and electrical testers that began in September and asked me how I thought I would like to be an electrical tester. I seemed to be interested in science and electricity. It was a three year course where you worked in the factory part f the time and attended classes part time. We both agreed that it would be difficult to earn a living if I went into music and the training would be costly. In the G.E. training program, on the other hand, I would be paid a small wage for the work I did in the factory so that I would be able to pay my own way from the start. So in the fall of 1916 I went to Ft. Wayne and enrolled in the apprentice school for electrical testers.

I found a nice room on Broadway within walking distance of the factory with Mr. and Mrs. Hubert Noble, who were in their forties and had no children. Mr. Noble worked in the post office. My roommate, Leonard Ericksen, a Swede from Minnesota, was also entering the G.E. apprentice school. Mrs. Noble found us a place to eat our meals, a boarding house across the street next to a big Lutheran church. Ft. Wayne had been settled by Germans. My beginning salary was $6.50 a week and it was enough to pay for my board and room and have enough left over to buy a piece of music or a phonograph record every month or so. At first I went home on weekends - the factory closed at noon on Saturday - tho I was not nearly so lonesome as I had been in Chicago. Leonard was a good guy, had no bad habits, and the Nobles were an extremely friendly couple. There was an upright piano and I was invited to use it all I wanted. When Mrs. Noble discovered I played the violin she invited a girl from her church (they were Methodist) to come over and play my accompaniments. She was quite a bit older than I was and I can't remember her name now but she had a younger sister by the name of Beatrice who was beautiful. I dated her several times after I got to know them better but she was already engaged to a young engineer who had just finished college.

The first eight months at G.E. were spent working in the apprentice machine shop. The classroom was partitioned off from it by glass walls. We started on the simplest machine tools, drillpresses, drilling holes in motor frames and other parts, then progressing thru the other common machine tools as we became proficient; shaper, planer and finally the milling machine. The assistant foreman, whose name was Oscar (I never knew his family name) was kept very busy showing us how to sharpen our tools, set up our work and a thousand other things we had to know. The foreman seldom came out of his office. I remember what he looked like but not his name. the head of the whole apprentice program was an engineer by the name of Hocker who had his headquarters in the main office building. He did no teaching; was director, not only of the apprentice school, but also the training program for new graduate engineers just out of college.

The class work was taught mostly by a graduate electrical engineer who was directly under Mr. Hocker. The subjects taught were shortened versions of an engineering course, mechanical drawing, mathematics and college algebra, trigonometry, analytic geometry and beginning calculus, theory of electrical circuits and mechanics and mechanisms. There were no English courses, foreign languages or cultural subjects, not even subjects related to electricity such as civil engineering, surveying or chemistry. There were no shop courses such as pattern making, woodshop, and no laboratories except for the machine shop and the various electrical testing labs and those were much better equipped than those in the best university shops and labs.

I had a natural ability with machines and by the end of the eight months in the machine shop had become a fairly competent machinist. It was dirty work, especially when we were machining cast iron which contains a lot of free carbon. The lard oil used to keep the cutting tools and the work from getting too hot would get into our clothes and shoes and Mrs. Noble worried that we would ruin her rugs and insisted that we change clothes as soon as we got home.

At the end of eighteen months I was transferred to the large motor and generator testing lab where I remained for four or five months. Since motors and generators are the same machine, one turning mechanical power into electricity and the other turning electricity into mechanical power, the same tests were run on both. Here again, I can't remember the name of the foreman. He was a tall, slim man of about 50 with white hair and mustache who left everything to his assistant, George Rudd. Both of them chewed tobacco. They were both friendly fellows who never pushed us to work faster.

The testing floor was a large area of cast iron, slotted so that T-bolts could be inserted to fasten down the machine being tested. All around the outside walls were booths open to the testing floor (the opposite side being the exterior walls of the building) with switchboards front and back. Above the switchboards were coils of resistance wires running to the ceiling. By plugging jacks into the switchboard you could connect to the coils so as to load the generator you were testing. The energy was dissipated as heat which was alright in the winter but could get very uncomfortable in the summer. A table below the switchboard allowed you to connect a portable ammeter and voltmeter and take the readings as you loaded up the machine. A stop watch and speed counter were used to check the speed and thermometers were stuck on to various spots on the frame to check the rise in temperature. A gob of putty held them in place. There were between ten and twenty testing booths being used at the same time. There were continual flashes of greenish light when the switches were opened to change the load. We were supposed to raise the load gradually and not throw the switch when there was a lot of current flowing thru it but many of the fellows got a kick out of seeing a big flash and disobeyed the rule. It looked dangerous to anyone not familiar with what was going on.

Most of the men working in the test room had little knowledge of electricity. They merely followed the routine that they had been taught which was not difficult to learn. I was interested in how things worked, however, and went behind the switchboard and traced out the circuits. The boss saw what I was doing and decided I would make a good teacher. A few days later he brought over a new employee, a young fellow just out of high school, as I was, so I could show him how to run a test. I began by showing him my diagrams of how the switchboard was connected. They had given me a much better understanding of what I was doing. The next day my helper was gone and the assistant foreman came to tell me that he had quit. He thought the job was much too complicated and he would never be able to learn to do it.

Toward the end of my stay on the test floor, an unusual machine was brought in. It had a commutator for direct current output on one side and was fitted with three rings on the opposite end of the shaft for three-phase alternating current at 15,000 volts. The boss gave me the job of running the tests on it. The DC side was 440 volts. The high voltage side had to be connected and disconnected so often during the test that he thought the best was to do it would simply be to lay a bare wire over the output terminal. I didn't care much about grabbing hold of a bare wire carrying 15,000 volts and told him so. He went and got some thick insulating pads and lay them on the floor, which was cast iron, and performed the operation two or three times himself. It was perfectly safe as long as I used only one hand, stood on the cork and touched nothing but the wire.

From the motor and generator testing lab I was transferred to the motor maintenance department. There were no overhead countershafts in the G.E. plant with belts running from it to all of the various machine tools. Every machine that needed power had its own motor attached. The operator of the machine was responsible for keeping it oiled and in good working condition but the motor maintenance department took care of the motors. Each employee of the department had a certain route to cover every day making sure there was oil in the bearings, cleaning and brushing away metal chips that could cause a short circuit and trying to spot any breakdown ahead of time. I could get thru my route in about three hours and had the rest of the day to loaf around watching the workers do their jobs, which, I suppose, was also part of my education. On Saturday morning all machines quit work at eleven o'clock to give the workers an hour to clean up their work spot. We carried a long air hose around with us that morning to clean out the interior of the motors.

It was while I was in the maintenance department that the G.E. management decided to pay their employees in gold as a promotion stunt. I was getting more pay by that time, tho it still wasn't much, and I received a ten dollar gold piece plus smaller coins in my pay envelope every week. I was unable to hang onto them, of course, as I had to live, but sometimes I took them home to Paulding to spend. I did manage to keep the two and a half dollar gold piece I received one Christmas from the grocery until the depression of the 1930s came along and we had to spend it for groceries. I kept it in the box that had contained the watch that my father had given me, and all the rest of his children in turn, when I graduated from high school. It was a gold watch with a deer engraved on the back. I had it repaired a number of times but it finally gave up and, besides, went out of style when wrist watches began to be worn during the first world war. Before that time anyone who wore a wrist watch was considered a sissy.

My next job was as helper to an old man, at least he seemed old to me, who worked in an out-of-the-way corner assembling and repairing commutators, for both DC and AC motors. Direct current motors were used much more then than now. I only worked a few weeks with him, then was sent to the switchboard department. The foreman there was a man of about 50 who gave me the impression of being a farmer. I think he had been. The slate switchboards came to us with the holes all drilled for fastening the switches, meters, wires, etc. and we were given blueprints to show where everything went. I was able by that time to follow a blueprint better than my boss so he let me go ahead and figure things out for myself. Sometimes, after lunch, I would get sleepy and sit dozing behind my corner of the switchboard without accomplishing much. I don't know whether my boss noticed but he never said anything. There was a lot of soldering to be done and I learned quite a few things about that. Small wires could be soldered with a soldering iron but big pieces, like the terminals on cables, had to be fastened with solder melted in a pot. Bus bars and heavy copper pieces were bolted in place.

When I arrived in Ft. Wayne, at the end of 1916, the whole G.E. plant was located east of Broadway at the point where the street dips under the railroad tracks but two big buildings were going up across Broadway on the west. When the one on the south was finished and machinery moved in I was sent to join a crew which was doing the wiring. My immediate boss was a cocky little man who couldn't say more than two words without swearing. He was good-natured but the most foul-mouthed man I have ever run across. Our crew had very little to do with the lighting. We connected the motors which ran the machines to the switches and circuits which were 110 volts. The power for the machinery was 440 volts, 3 phase. I came closer to being electrocuted on that job than any of the others I had worked on. I was pulling cable thru a conduit in the floor into a metal switchbox when my hand touched the box. I got a jolt that nearly knocked me to the floor. I was more careful about touching metal objects from then on, at least until I was sure they were well grounded.

My next assignment was back in building no. 17 on the east side of Broadway in the small motor test lab. I was waiting in the office of the lab the first morning I was to work there for the boss to appear and noticed a very attractive and pleasant-mannered young man, in his early thirties, doing small jobs out in the lab and thought to myself, "I wish that were my boss." In a few minutes he came into the office and I discovered he was.

There was only one other worker in the lab besides the boss and myself, a short, slightly built fellow about my age or a little older. He wasn't on the apprentice program but was ambitious to learn as much as he could. I helped him select a sliderule and showed him how to use it.

The tests in the small motor lab were similar to those I had learned on the main test floor, on a smaller scale. We made measurements of voltage and current, r.p.m., brake power and checked rise in temperature as the load was increased. New applications for small motors were being invented very fast in 1917 and 18 and the engineers were kept busy trying out new ideas and they often came in the lab to work alongside of us, eager to find out if their calculations had been correct.

I was working in the small motor test laboratory when the machinists union went out on strike. It shut down the whole plant except for the office workers and a few others who were not afraid to cross the picket lines. I wasn't bothered and kept on working all alone in the lab until a week before Christmas when I decided to take advantage of the situation to go home for the Holidays. I felt a little guilty about it because the engineers were coming in to help me with the testing but I also felt a little uneasy about crossing the picket lines. I did want to spend Christmas at home. I went back to work before the strike was over but it only lasted a couple more weeks.

After the new buildings were completed on the west side of Broadway, all of the production of transformers, meters and induction motors was transferred over there. I served about a month testing transformers. Instead of having a lab to which the transformers were brought for testing, we carted our instruments around to where they were lined up waiting to be shipped out. The principal test was to check for shorts with high voltage. We fastened a chain to all of the terminals of a whole batch of transformers and tested all of them at once. The high-voltage cables terminated in hollow insulators which we held in our hands. By pressing a lever with our thumbs, a short piece of metal was made to project from the end of the tubular insulators. Since we had a tube in each hand it was impossible for us to come in contact with the high-voltage with our hands. One of us held the terminals, touching one to the chain, the other to the metal housing, while the other threw the high-voltage switch.

In the meter department I assembled watt-hour meters, the type that is attached to the side of a house or other building to measure the amount of electricity consumed. The small parts, brass spindles, cogs, aluminum discs, etc. were made on automatic screw machines, stamping and forming presses and similar machines on the same floor. The automatic screw machines fascinated me and I wasted a lot of time watching them busily at work with no human around to guide them, turning out hundreds of small parts, mostly of brass, and dropping them in a tray.

Sometimes a cutting tool would wear down or for some other reason a machine would turn out defective parts which had to be scrapped. I had begun reading up on radio and the sight of so many small pieces gave me the idea of using them to try to build one. Most radio sets of the time were primitive spark-crystal sets and communication was in code with dots and dashes like the Morse code. Instead of the clicks you heard in a telegraph office, you heard a buzz in your earphones. There were no loudspeakers. Only one person could listen at a time. In 1906 an engineer by the name of DeForest invented the vacuum tube which not only took the place of the crystal as a detector but could send out a continuous wave on which a speech pattern could be imposed, and so the era of broadcasting began. The primary objective of most radio hams in the beginning was to pick up stations as far away as possible and to contact as many other hams as possible.

After public broadcasting began, I built my own set out of scrap pieces, mostly from the meter department. I made variable condensers out of meter discs with spools to adjust the tuning and wound coils so I could vary the inductance. About the only thing I had to buy was the vacuum tube and its socket. It was a pretty clumsy affair but it worked. For an aerial I simply strung a wire from my set to the top of a tree or the roof. I bought a second pair of ear-phones and carried the set around, even to Paulding, so other people could listen to it. Detroit came in loud and clear and so did KDKA in Pittsburgh. Aunt Irene was dumbfounded when she put on the ear-phones and heard music coming of my box. Radio developed very fast after the war was over just as TV did after the second world war so my set soon became obsolete.

About the time the United States entered the first world war, I was put to work in the big new machine shop on the third floor of one of the buildings west of Broadway. Most of my work was war production. I remember one of my jobs was machining aluminum cases for portable radio transmitters. I didn't like the idea of going back into a machine shop and protested to Mr. Hocker. He talked to my foreman who then gave me a variety of work to give me experience with machines and attachments to machines that I hadn't used before, such as indexing on a milling machine, cutting gears, etc.

My last transfer was to the main drafting room in the principal office building. At that time all drawings were first made on drawing paper with a pencil. A hard pencil was used so it could be sharpened to a fine point as dimensions were held to a sixty-fourth of an inch. After the drawing was finished and checked it had to be traced in India ink on tracing vellum. The engineer worked out the main design in a rough sketch and gave it to an experienced draftsman to lay out to scale. He often did his own tracing but frequently handed the drawing to a tracer. The tracing vellum was translucent and slick and had to be rubbed with talcum powder or the ink would not stick. As many blueprints as desired could be made from the tracing. At the beginning of the second world war, in order to save time, tracing a drawing in ink was abandoned, the original design being worked out directly on tracing paper of vellum with a fairly soft pencil. Prints were made from the original drawing.

After working in a noisy machine shop I was glad to have a chance to work in a quiet drafting room, quiet that is, except for the quips and banter that went on almost continuously. The boss, who sat at a desk at one side of the room didn't seem to hear. I was also glad to be able to wear clean clothes to work and I think Mrs. Noble appreciated the fact that I didn't get dirt on her rugs any more. Office workers wore a smaller identification button, about the size of a quarter, with the G.E. trademark in black and silver, instead of the large blue and white button of the workers in the factory.

It was in the drafting room that I met the two German fellows that I later played tennis with, Erik and George. Erik was a couple of years older than I was and had a desk a short distance behind me while Georg (German spelling) was a sort of messenger for the blueprint room which was next to the drawing room.

I was still going to class an hour and a half or two hours a day and one of the courses we had was on mechanisms, chains, cams, gears, linkages and many other devices used in machinery. As there were times during the day when I had no work to do I decided I would try to design an automatic vacuum cleaner for large halls. I used two small motors, one to provide the vacuum, the other to move the device around the room. You had to take all of the furniture out of the room then start the cleaner going in one corner and it would move over the whole floor cleaning as it went and shut itself off when it was thru. I was working on it one day (I had the design all completed and was tracing it) when it was time to go to class so I pulled the cloth cover over it and left. I didn't care to have anyone see what I was doing. When I came back after class there were a group of men around my desk, one of whom I recognized as the head of the small motor engineering department. They nodded to me and left without saying anything. It worried me a little as I was using an expensive sheet of vellum for my tracing and my project had little to do with my work.

A couple of days afterward I got a note from Mr. Hocker's office asking me to go down and see him. He asked me if I thought I would like to work in the small motor engineering office. The mechanical engineer was there, a man by the name of Nordstrom, needed someone who was a good draftsman to work up his ideas to scale from his freehand pencil sketches. Naturally I was delighted.

So my three year apprenticeship ended and I went to work in the small motors engineering department in 1919. I already knew most of the engineers from working in the small motors test lab and I had also seen them in the drafting room. Each one had his desk and his secretary to take dictation and type his letters. I was given a desk with room for a drawing board next to Mr. Nordstrom. Mr. Welch, the head of the department, had a large desk in one corner of the room where all of the engineers, including me, assembled for a conference a couple of times a week. Mr. Welch was quite deaf and had to use a hearing aid, a device about six inches in diameter which sat on a stand in front of him, or he held it in his hand, and was attached to a receiver in his ear. We were all supposed to being a note pad along though I never took any notes. One of the conferences, I remember, was to evaluate an electric shaver which an inventor wanted to sell to the company. It was the first one any of us had ever seen. It wasn't practical, however and it was turned down. It wasn't until several years later that practical electric shavers were developed and put on the market, and not by the General Electric Company.

When I accepted the job, I had to sign a form that any inventions that I would patent while employed by the G.E. Company would become the property of the company. I had no ideas for patenting anything but I could understand why I was required to sign the paper. Another man in the department who worked on mechanical devices spent all of his time fiddling with a gadget, a sort of liquid transmission which could also be used as a pump, which had nothing to do with his regular work. He was about 10 years older than I but, as we were doing the same sort of work, got to know each other quite well. Besides his drawings of the device, he kept making models of it out of cardboard and wooden match sticks which he would bring over to my desk. He swore me to secrecy because, he told me, as soon as he had the gadget perfected and patented, he would quit his job and try to either manufacture the thing himself or sell the idea. He thought he could make his fortune if he could get financing. A few months after I met him he got married and I didn't see him so often.

Mr. Nordstrom, the man I was working for, was a graduate mechanical engineer. He was rather short and dumpy, partly bald and unmarried, a bachelor of about 50. He had a brother who was an electrical engineer, who was tall and slim. My boss was not a particularly hard worker. He liked to tell long stories and, as I sat right next to him, kept me occupied, sometimes for an hour, listening to them. For all anyone could tell, we were having a conference over some phase of our work. I felt uncomfortable, especially if Mr. Welch looked in our direction, but Nordstrom was my box. Somehow he discovered that I was above average as an artist and from then on he pestered me about drawing a cartoon strip. He spent one whole morning outlining a series of cartoons about a family like the Nebbs and suggested at the end that, since he was supplying the ideas, he should have a part of whatever I would earn by selling my work to a newspaper syndicate. He rather resented the fact that I didn't seem to take him seriously.

Table of Contents
Going to Work - A False Start
Life in Ft. Wayne - 1916 to 1920

Last modified on 08 June 2009 @ 22:23