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John Edson Sweet

Modified on 2018/06/14 12:40 by Joel Havens Categorized as Biographies
     John E. Sweet     


Reminiscences and Characteristics of Professor John Edson Sweet


By J. E. Johnson, Consulting Engineer and Metallurgist.

      An extremely interesting, elevating and well written account of the life and character of Prof. John E. Sweet was prepared for The American Machinist by J. E. Johnson, Jr., Cornell, M.M.E. '92, and appeared in their issues of Nov. 16 and 23. Owing to the fact that Prof. Sweet was such a vital force in fashioning the Engineering Course in the early days of Sibley College and in molding the characters of so many of its best teachers and graduates, and due to the splendid portrayal we here reproduce rather fully the articles as they appeared in The American Machinist.

      In the opening paragraphs Mr. Johnson shows that Prof. Sweet was greater than the material records show, that his character was more than his achievements, and his being surpassed his doing. He then continues as follows:

      Professor Sweet's life as a whole, may properly be divided into two portions— that previous to his becoming professor of mechanical arts at Cornell, and the portion subsequent to that important event. Owing to the urging of some of us, Professor Sweet prepared within quite recent years an outline of an auto-biography. This has the defect that Professor's incurable modesty did not permit him to put the emphasis upon the important things of his life, or even to describe them fully. Nevertheless, it is the best information we have in regard to his early life and is quoted here almost in full:


      I was born in Pompey, and Pompey was a good place to come from, because a good many pretty good people have come from there: Horatio Seymour, who ran for President; Grace Greenwood, the author of “Fifty Years Ago"; Charles Mason, patent commissioner; and later, Holland Duell, also commissioner; William Avery, the inventor of the Avery engine and many other useful inventions; besides many other noted people. Pompey generated some comedians and liars—one man who had two yoke of oxen drawing interest, and a liar who could give Baron Munchausen hearts and spades and beat him on inventing stories. As an example, he built himself a log house and it was so tight that the fire would not draw, so he bored a gimlet hole through the sash and it was all right. Old Strickland had a wonderful dog that could run like streaked lightning. It was chasing a fox, and the fox swerved past a sapling. The dog, always aiming for the fox, struck his nose squarely against the sapling, which split him from end to end; and as the two halves passed the sapling, they came together and welded, and the dog kept on and captured the fox. The thing that I remember that dates back the farthest must have been when I was perhaps three years old. I had my knee on a stick across my little chair, trying to saw the stick with a compass saw. My father said, “That boy will make a mechanic.” That I remember as distinctly as I do anything that happened yesterday. How near that prophecy came true, others may guess. I believe the next event that I call to mind was when I was four years old. Our people moved to a farm at Britain Settlement, now Collamer, north of Messina Springs. I only remember that Jim Terwilliger (I remember him particularly, as he challenged my first vote) attended the same country school, but not long, as I do not think I went over two days. When we were returning to the Pompey farm, we stopped at Messina Springs Hotel. My mother was taken sick and asked my father to get her some wine, and I was horror-stricken. It would seem from this incident that I inherited my temperance notions. I don't know what became of me from that time until I was seven years old, probably nothing, for when I was four years old my youngest sister was born and from that time until I went to school I existed and kept out of the way. I was always tinkering and was dubbed “Johnny Tinker.” I don't remember about my great achievements during my school life, as that was mostly in the old stone schoolhouse. I cannot remember that I ever studied— not that I was the bad boy in the school or out, or made any trouble, as I was never punished or had a fight. My best hold was in arithmetic and geography, the latter because I could draw the maps better than the others, and the arithmetic was easy for me. There were three schoolhouses, each a mile and a half away, and it was getting an education at long range. My last teacher was a Miss Bridgman, who found out my weak points in schoolwork when the study of grammar came up, for I got no farther than the one rule, “A noun is the name of something.” When she attempted to start me on algebra she said, “Let A stand for 300,” or something of that sort. I asked why three and two naughts wouldn't do just as well. She then gave it up as a bad job.


      My mechanical experience started simultaneously with my schoolwork, as the first day was only a half-day in school. I went home at noon, and in the afternoon, I made a model of a plow. With one of my left-hand improvements, I made the moldboard very long and explained to my brother that I made it that way because it would draw easier. So, my mechanism began to show itself early, as did my disposition to do things better. I cannot call to mind ever starting on a job without thinking out how to make it better than it had been done before.

      When I was about twelve years old I made a small fiddle. My parents likely thought I made the fiddle because I wanted to play it, so I was sent over to Mr. Sutherland's to take lessons and came home at the end of two weeks with about a dozen tunes to my credit, which would indicate that I was an apt scholar. Perhaps I was, in a way, but no musician, as I did not learn how to tune my fiddle for twenty or thirty years, and then not as musicians tune theirs. I make a distinction between a fiddler and a musician: The fiddler plays one note at once and the musician two, and when I learned to tune my fiddle it was in a new way. When the string of a stringed instrument is slightly touched in its middle, both halves vibrate alike, and the result is a harmonic; if touched at a point one-third of its length, it divides into three parts and all three vibrate, making a harmonic of a higher key. This harmonic on the A string is the same when the instrument is in tune as the first harmonic on the E string, so I discovered that I could tune the instrument by bringing these two together. I could tell when the two notes were at the same pitch, but never could tell when two notes of different pitch harmonized.

      It was during this period of my life that I first began my graphic method of solving problems. I had noticed the unequal spacing of the frets of a guitar and learned from Mr. Sutherland that the true A sharp and B flat were not the same, but that in a guitar, piano, etc., the same note was used. He said, too, that the violin and trombone were the only true instruments, as by those the true flats and sharps could be produced. I devised a graphic method to lay out the frets, making the best compromise for all keys. I made a guitar and so placed the frets, and Mr. Sutherland said it was the best guitar he had ever seen. Likely the way the standard instruments are made is the best for some one key— C perhaps—and worse for some other.

      About these days our people had a stone cistern made and the masons were two of the Fargoes. The founder of the express business was one, and he appeared a little too well dressed for a mason; but when my mother mentioned it, he said he would never wear poorer, and during his later life he didn't have to.


      I distinctly remember my first lesson in moving mechanisms. In those days our grain was at first threshed by a complete horsepower machine erected in our barn, and later by the portable machine that circulated during the fall from farm to farm. In the case of the latter the horses and gearing operated outside the barn, and a belt conveyed the power to the machine in the barn. I told one of my brothers that I couldn't see why the cylinder of the machine went faster than the band-wheel of the power, as certainly one end of the belt could not travel any faster than the other. I expect he set me right, and it is mighty few times I have ever had to be set right in that respect.

      I was always at making something, had a turning lathe in the second story of our horse barn. It was turned by a crank, and my sister-in-law used to climb the stairs and turn the crank. We had, in the years of my idle life, a good deal of building and repair work in which I took a hand, and this led to my going, on the first of April, 1850, to learn the carpenter's trade. I worked seven months as an apprentice, for $7 a month. This money went for tools and board at $2 a week here in Syracuse, when I began to spend my money to the best advantage. By the favor of a neighbor living here, he got me the opportunity to build the fires and sweep the office of Deacon Hayden, who was then the only architect in the city, so then from the early winter till carpenter time in the spring I was learning something about drawing and architecture as that existed at that day.

      At that period of my life I was fortunate to become associated with two of the best men possible, John Pinkerton and Deacon Hayden. The first week of my apprenticeship I helped make two planes, one of which I still possess.

      My mechanical life ran into architecture, and there are a number of buildings in this city from my designs, and my architectural career ended at the breaking out of the Rebellion, when I was building from my own design at Selma, Ala., a hotel that would have been the second-best hotel in the South. It was stopped, and the plans were destroyed during the Rebellion. I was called down there afterward to make the plans over, and now, as a monument, I should not be ashamed of it if erected in this city.


      After returning from the South, where I left one rainy day, I became acquainted with William B. Cogswell, who was a partner with my brothers. He left there for the Central R. R. shops and from there took a position in the Government shop at Port Royal. I took his place at the railroad shop and completed the drawings in detail for locomotive No. 108. The Government at the seat of war at that time was giving jobs to those who wanted to stand up and be shot at, which was a job that I did not hanker for. Besides, I had cultivated a desire to see Venice and other cities, and so, early in 1862, I went to the London Exhibition of that year, and from there to Paris, Switzerland and Italy, as far as Rome.

      A good deal of this trip was alone and, remember, traveling fifty years ago alone in foreign countries was not the simple job it would be now. There were events along the journey worthy of notice; but I can only mention a few. In going over the St. Gothard Pass it was in a two-horse box, with four of us jammed inside with our limbs ship-lapped together—two Russian women, a German and myself. It was a jolly party. We were allowed to disembark at the Devil's Bridge, where the noise of the boiling water was so deafening that it would not have made any difference what language we spoke; nothing could have been understood. It took all night to get over to Como, and from there we went by train to Milan. During the night on the mountain, we stopped at the hospice, where we exchanged money for bread.

      From Milan to Venice, then a half-day's journey, we went over the line to that part of Italy that was then under Austrian rule, through the forts and battlefields, through Verona and into Venice, which was one of the scary times of my life. It was midnight, and instead of getting into the gondola omnibus two gondoliers got me in a single gondola and made a short-cut of a couple of miles or so through the narrow, dark canals to the hotel. It makes me shudder now, fifty years later, to think of it. Venice was a gem to me, and it has grown brighter and brighter each of the three or four times I have seen it since.


      On a Saturday afternoon I went with a gondola-omnibus load out to the Adriatic bathing ground. A young gentleman, recognizing me as an American, came over and started an acquaintance. He asked me to come and take dinner with him Sunday. It turned out to be William Dean Howells, then consul at Venice, and later one of America's greatest authors. On Sunday evening, while in the depot to leave for Florence, another gentleman made himself known to me. He proved to be the general agent of the Wheeler & Wilson Sewing Machine Co. We traveled together until we returned to Paris.

      Through Florence, Pisa and Rome I made myself so conversant with the make-up of all the sights that when I visited them fifty years later it seemed to me as easy to travel there as in our own cities. I will not bother to enumerate the various sights further than to mention St. Peter's, the Coliseum, Pantheon, the Capitoline Hill and Museum, Trajan's Forum, St. Paul's outside the Gates, the Pincian Hill, the Museum, the Vatican, the statue of Moses and that of Pauline Borghese. At the visit fifty years later, about the only notable addition was the statue of Garibaldi. In the thirty-six-hour return trip from Civita Vecchia to Marseilles I learned what it was to be seasick for thirty-five hours.


      After returning to London, where I first saw Dickens, I secured a position as draftsman in the International Patent Office, a big name for two of us—Dr. Hazeltine as the company, and I assistant. It was pretty hard sledding sometimes. I got a job one time making the patent drawings of a machine for making envelopes, and the last dinner before I got my pay was made out of a halfpenny loaf of bread eaten beneath a railway arch– a halfpenny loaf is not the best bread made in England. My first knowledge of Charles T. Porter of Porter Allen engine fame was in making the patent drawings for the Richards indicator for him. At that time patent documents, including the drawings, were all on parchment.

      I had invented a nail machine to make two nails where one was made before, and at Mr. Hazeltine's instigation I took out an English patent. He interested the proprietor of the Patent Nut & Bolt Co. to undertake the construction and introduction of my machine at its works at Smethwick, near Birmingham, and there I spent the remainder of the two years I was away in making two or three machines and in trying to make them go. Returning home, where I had sent the drawings, I found that a machine was being made from improved drawings, and the patent attorney had taken an interest. When the machine (which didn't work any better than the English one) was done, we went with it to New York as joint owners. The attorney sold out my half of the patent to some of the sewing-machine men for $10,000. Eventually he got half of it and two or three years at a good salary to make two or three more machines that didn't work, either.

      Out of the money I built another machine and exhibited it at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, where I saw Napoleon III and his wife, the Empress Eugénie, one of the most noble and beautiful women I ever saw; King William, who later became Kaiser William I of Germany; Bismarck and other notables; the kings of Austria, Spain, Portugal; the shah of Persia; khedives of Egypt and Turkey; and the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII and father of the present King George V. Later, at the Centennial, I saw Don Pedro, ruler of Brazil, and had the honor of meeting the King of Belgium in Brussels; that is, he was going one way in the street and I was going the other.


      The machine I invented is in the museum at Cornell, a relic now, but a masterpiece of ingenuity and workmanship executed by William H. Craig, a master mechanic. It was an attempt to supersede movable type and was the forerunner of the linotype.

      For a time, I was superintendent for Whitman & Barnes, then at bridge building for Howard Soule— the man I used to say I had as lief carry my pocket-book as to carry it myself. While building a bridge at Ithaca, President White and Mr. Cornell came around one afternoon and asked me to meet the Cornell Board, which I did and talked over what to do in the Sibley shop. This was soon after building the first StraightLine engine, and some months after this I was engaged to take charge of the Cornell shop.

      The engine was purely an experimental one. Almost every element differed from common practice. The frame was straight instead of crooked; the cylinder had a jacket cast around it; the piston had a length equal to the diameter; the piston rod was ground round and straight and ran through a reamed bush; the crank between two flywheels; the valve a mechanically fitted balanced valve; engine resting on three points; end play to shaft and crank bearings; and many other features. Explaining this and the notion of making perfectly flat plates and straight-edges and a measuring machine, etc., and suggesting these things in the shop are probably what got me the position, and doing these things is what kept it. We speak of the engine as an invention, while, in fact, the engine in its various forms and the different devices devised for its manufacture likely would foot up to nearer a hundred than one.


      At Cornell we were constantly developing new things —absolutely perfect surface plates, straight-edges, squares and angles, standard gages by the use of the measuring machine (which we built, the first ever built in this country, and which read to the ten-thousandth of an inch and enabled us to judge to the forty-thousandth of an inch). Visitors to the university were always shown our shop, and the wonders of the work we were doing interested the greatest of them all. Mr. Cornell was a constant, interested visitor while he lived; General Grant, Henry Ward Beecher, John Hay and hundreds of others came. In conversation with Henry Ward Beecher I casually remarked that an ordinary college graduate was of not much use in a machine shop, and he said he guessed I had never seen one in a pulpit.

      Measuring hairs was one of the things to show off. The fact that all the hairs of one's head are of the same size was a discovery, and the various sizes was another. Every hair of my head, and I measured hundreds, is twenty-four ten-thousandths of an inch, and the finest one I ever measured was fifteen ten-thousandths.       I remember one incident: We built certain lathes, and among other new things all the bolts and nuts that had to be changed to meet conditions were made to be operated by the one wrench. Showing it off to a friend, he said, “What in the world would you do if you lost that wrench".


      The best thing we made, or helped make, at Sibley, I suppose—or hope, at least—was a lot of valuable men. A train of circumstances compelled me to abandon my post, a lamentable thing for both, I think. I returned here, remodeled the engine and made it so good that five of us put in a thousand dollars each and organized the Straight-Line Engine Co. With the aid of a company of able and devoted assistants we built up during the third of a century a moderate business and an extra good reputation. During the life and death of the engine business four of the five founders—David Hotchkiss, George Barnes, Anson A. Sweet and Henry Stevens—have died; and by the combined elements of gas engines, electric motors and other and more profitable business for the shop the engine business has died. A few months before the Chicago's World Fair, where I spent six months as a judge, I designed a steam separator; and at the instigation of some of our associates . the separator was patented and the Direct Separator Co. organized. At first it seemed like the tail of the Straight-Line Engine dog, and later it looked as if the tail was going to wag the dog. Anyway, under the management of some of the engine company's lieutenants it has prospered wonderfully. Some three or four years ago the manufacturers in the city joined in building a trade school. While it had to be abandoned, it was not because of any fault of the plan. It was undertaken because of my advocating it, so it naturally fell to my lot to father it; and the cause of the failure was my age. I was twenty-five years too old when the school was started, and it was wearing me out. It is lamentable that the engine business failed, and it is far more lamentable that the school failed. Such are the little events of my life, because there were no big ones. I have never been drowned, burned to death, shot or dynamited; in fact, I have never been killed, in jail, arrested or sued. Likely the most important thing I have done was to set the ball rolling for the organization of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, of which there are between four and five thousand members scattered throughout the inhabited surface of the world; that which is the most pleasing is the annual meeting of my “boys", who gather to honor me on my birthday, and have for a dozen years. A year ago the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, through a committee, made a great splurge, and in the large assembly room seated 250 to honor my eightieth birthday. It was a great occasion and a great honor. I have traveled a good deal, likely nearer two hundred thousand miles than one, and never met with but one accident. That was from jumping out of a buggy when ordered out by the driver. I struck on my head, which knocked me out for a couple of hours and knocked my eyes out of focus. I have crossed the Atlantic fifteen times, have been in ten seas and twenty-two countries. I have recently been honored by the degree of doctor of engineering. In response to the committee I said I could not understand how I deserved it, and I see no way to justify it, except to use the remaining years of my life in inventing a way to get electricity direct from the coal, or a way to burn the coal in the mines.

      Professor Sweet's Boys as to the portion of Professor's life during and subsequent to the Cornell days we have the recollections of “Professor Sweet's boys.” Perhaps it will be as well to give here a brief description of the loose organization to whose members this term was applied. It was perhaps the most significant phase of Professor Sweet's character that men once thrown in contact with him, even if not very intimately, retained a vivid recollection of him and a desire for more of his companionship. This was partly because of his personal charm and partly because of the generosity with which he gave himself, to whoever might ask of him, without any question of the right of the person asking the favor, but simply on the ground that that person asked his assistance. In the early autumn of 1901 I received a letter from E. J. Armstrong, superintendent of the Ball Engine Co., who had at one time been superintendent of the Straight-Line. He asked me what I thought of the project of getting together as many as we could of the old boys for a dinner in Professor's honor and of making some sort of presentation to him to show our affection for him. I responded enthusiastically and so, I think, did all the others to whom Mr. Armstrong wrote. No organization was formed, except a dinner committee, and Mr. Armstrong did practically all the work as secretary of that. Mrs. Sweet was taken into our confidence, but the matter was kept entirely from Professor's knowledge. Fortunately for our plans, he and Mrs. Sweet took a long trip to Mexico during that fall and returned only a short time before the date set for the dinner. In casting around for something to present, one or two suggested a watch. Mr. Armstrong wrote that as the one Professor already had, which had a rubber case, “fell apart whenever he opened it, and his eyes were getting too poor for rapid reassembling,” it was decided that a watch would be most suitable.

      The trouble was that a watch is jewelry, and Professor with his extreme simplicity of taste would not like and probably would not use a watch of the ordinary character. At the same time he had often expressed his admiration for the wonderful works made by Jurgensen. He also admired very greatly the black finish on iron made by the Bauer Barff process. Accordingly, a set of Jurgensen works was procured and a special case made of Bauer Barffed iron, bearing on the cover a bas relief in gold of the first Straight-Line engine. The project was financed by voluntary subscriptions from the “boys.”


      The date chosen for the dinner was one of the evenings during the latter part of the week of the New York meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in December, 1901. The dinner was held at the old “Arena.” Professor had planned to go back to Syracuse the afternoon of the day for which the dinner was set, but Mrs. Sweet discouraged the idea and Mr. Armstrong persuaded him to stay over to help “talk to some men to whom he (Armstrong) wanted to sell an engine.” We all gathered in a reception room, adjacent to the dining room, at an early hour, and Armstrong then brought in Professor to meet the men who were “to buy the engine.” His surprise and delight in meeting again these men, many of whom he had not seen for twenty years or more, was something that will always be one of the pleasant recollections of my life. He went around the room greeting each one in turn with equal delight, but with varying degrees of surprise in the different cases. One man, not interested in engineering and whom Professor had not seen for nearly twenty-five years, came all the way from Cleveland to attend the dinner. After the greetings were over, we adjourned to the dining room, where the dinner was served. In deference to Professor's strong temperance convictions no wines or liquors of any kind were served, and I think that no one even smoked, but at the later meetings Professor insisted upon providing the cigars himself.

      Albert W. Smith, then Dean of Leland Stanford University and now Dean of Sibley College, presided. No outside talent in the way of speakers was called in; a half-dozen or so of the “boys” had been given subjects and were called upon. Engineers are not always good speakers, but perhaps because in this case what they had to say came straight from their hearts, I think I have never heard speeches of such a high order of real excellence and suitability for the occasion as those were. The lamented John A. Hill was there, on account of Professor's long association with The American Machinist, and made a rattling speech, one or two sentences of which have always remained in my memory. One of them was that he believed “in holding the wake while the corpse was still alive and could have part of the fun,” a fact we too often forget.

None of the speakers made the slightest allusion to any feature of the dinner except the reunion, until the last one, F. A. Halsey, now editor emeritus of The American Machinist. At the conclusion of a few well-chosen sentences Mr. Halsey drew from his pocket the case containing the watch and presented it to Professor “as a token of our affection and esteem.” The old gentleman had been having as much fun as anybody out of the proceedings, but that was too much for him. He arose to his feet with the tears streaming down his cheeks and said, “Gentlemen, I had expected to make a few remarks but I cannot,” and sat down. We sat around and talked to a late hour, and it was unanimously voted that the meeting was such a great success that we should hold one every year, and this was accordingly done.


      Every year, with the exception of 1911, when Professor was on a trip around the world, a fair-sized company of “the boys” met at dinner to do him honor. Once we had only eight or ten, but at most of the gatherings there were from fifteen to twenty-five or thirty. Considering that there were only about fifty on the whole list and that some of these were so far away or so circumstanced that they could never come, it will be seen that the percentage of the attendance compared with any other similar annual dinner was very high. In a good many instances men came a thousand miles or more simply for this dinner, and in one case a man came from Denver and in another from San Francisco. Considering that these gatherings were only informal affairs and that the sole attraction was meeting and honoring Professor once more, this fact constitutes as remarkable a commentary as anything could on the hold which he maintained on his friends. These dinners were repeated every year at the same time and place until 1910. In 1911 Professor was on a tour around the world, and no dinner was held. In 1912 Professor's eightieth birthday occurred, on Oct. 21, and in that year the American Society of Mechanical Engineers gave him the large dinner mentioned in his “Reminiscences,” already quoted, in the United Engineering Building in New York. Thereafter the dinners were held at the Onondaga Hotel in Syracuse on Professor's birthday, as his increasing age made it more difficult for him to stand the strain of coming to New York. Up to the very last dinner the list increased of those who, by close association and affection for Professor, felt entitled to be enrolled, and in one case at least the second generation made its appearance at the dinners.


      As to Professor's great works, little can be said that the engineering profession does not generally know. At Cornell he had charge of the mechanical end of the first “dynamo” built in America, of which Professor Anthony designed the electric end, and he started there the manufacture of micrometer calipers, which he called “measuring machines,” because he preferred the simple English name for everything. He also began there the making of limit gages and standard gages of hardened and ground steel, such as are now common, but which at that day were scarcely known. He not only had these gages made by the students, but he literally fathered their general introduction into shop practice, as well as that of many other mechanical refinements now in common use, but too numerous to mention here. A notable feature of his designing was that he achieved results by leaving things off rather than by putting them on. If somebody had accomplished a given result through the use of a lot of moving parts, he would scheme some simple way whereby the same result could be obtained with the aid of one or two parts.


      Another feature of Professor's designing, which in a sense was connected with that last described, was his tremendous artistic sense. He had entered engineering through architecture and had realized fifty years ahead of the rest of the American world that true art in architecture consists of a harmonious adaptation of the mean employed to the end desired, not in the addition of superfluous parts for purposes of ornament only. He believed, and rightly, as we now know, that art in machine designing consists in the most direct and harmonious adaptation of the means at hand to the object desired. The fluting of columns, the ornamental paneling of flat surfaces and the like, the use of curves where a straight line would serve and, above all, where a stress was to be transmitted were customary in machine designs only twenty or thirty years ago, but they were all abominations in Professor's truly artistic sight. In matters of appearance, as well as in the mechanism used, he believed in the harmonious assembling of the essential and the absolute elimination of the unnecessary.

      This is so much a feature of the best present-day designing that those familiar only with the present do not realize how different were the conditions previous to Professor's precepts and example concerning the beauties of simplicity. He had a saying, “Whatever is right, looks right”; and if something looked wrong, he would analyze it until he found what the wrong was. It is probable that he came nearer to criticizing the work of others in this direction than in any other except in matters involving moral turpitude, such as theft of another man's design or ideas, copying without acknowledgment and the like. In those matters, though he commonly did not say very much, the little he did say was greatly to the point and left the hearer in no doubt at all as to his meaning and his sentiments.

      He was quick to acknowledge the merits of the work of others in truly artistic design, as in all other directions. I have heard him speak in terms of the greatest admiration of the splendid simplicity of the lines of the Centennial Corliss engine and of the work of some European designers in which art was served by suppressing ornamentation.


      In the brief autobiography previously quoted Professor mentions some of the details of the Straight-Line engine, but does not tell how remarkable was the workmanship or how radical was the design as compared with previous practice. At the time I was there, now nearly twenty-five years ago, he was using hardened and ground bushings for the valve gear, so that if a pin became worn, its bush was knocked off and a new one put on, while if the bore became worn, its bushing was knocked out and a new one inserted. In this way the life of these parts was indefinite. The main-bearing shells were solid, but had eccentric cheek pieces of hard babbitt fitted inside them so that rotating up these cheek pieces by liners behind the thick edge took up the wear, but left the center of the bearing surface unchanged. The valve stem was a bush of hard babbitt about two feet long, hand reamed to an exact fit on the ground valve stem. The babbitt bush was held in a gland, so that it could accommodate itself to the line of the valve stem; the piston-rod packing was the same, except much shorter. This construction made an absolutely tight joint, which was good for years without any adjustment whatever and with an irreducible minimum of friction. Special trams were invented, which centered themselves to the actual bore of the cylinder and permitted the main-bearing shell seats in the frame to be bored absolutely at right angles to the center line of the cylinder. Professor made a study of the action of oil in moving machinery; and when the Straight-Line engine was built, it was an engine with the lubricating system built into it instead of being an engine with some oil cups stuck on it. It is probable that the system of lubrication, which was an inherent part of that engine twenty-five years ago, has not been bettered since. He not only schemed simple ways to make the oil go where he wanted it to go, but equally simple ones that prevented it from traveling where he did not want it to go–for instance, the knife-edge rings mounted on the shaft close to the ends of the main-bearing shells and inside of hoods cast in the frame, which caught the oil thrown off by the knife-edges and returned it to the oil cellar in the base of the main bearing. These things are simple and obvious enough when they are once done, but those whose memory goes back so far will remember what a huge step in advance they constituted over anything that had been done up to that time. The question of the relationship between mathematics and engineers is one that has often been fought over. In the reminiscences already quoted Professor gives the disastrous results of the first attempt to teach him algebra. I doubt whether any subsequent one was more successful, for he knew nothing of that Science or of any higher mathematics. Yet by intuitive reasoning power, sometimes assisted by simple but marvelously ingenious applications of graphics, he achieved results that were positively startling. The best illustration of this is the story of him told by Mr. Armstrong. On one occasion during a call from some professor the latter spoke of the very difficult problem in geometry which the mathematicians had just succeeded in solving—namely, that if three circles of different diameters are drawn in any position in a plane and a pair of tangents are drawn to each side of each pair of circles and prolonged to their intersection, the intersecting points of all three pairs of tangents will lie in a straight line. Professor thought this over for a few minutes and said: “Yes, certainly, I can see that that is true.”

      The other professor said: “I guess you don't understand, Professor. This is a very difficult problem, and we have just finally accomplished its solution. I don't think it is as obvious as you think it is.”

      “Why, yes,” said Professor, “of course it is obvious. Instead of three circles in a plane, take three balls, lying on a surface plate. Instead of drawing tangents, imagine a cone wrapped around each pair of balls. On top of the three balls lay another surface plate. It will rest on the three balls and will necessarily be tangent to each of the three cones. The apexes of all the cones must lie in the interesction of the two surface plates, and as the intersection of two planes is always a straight line, the apexes of the cones will lie in a straight line. It seems to me that this is perfectly obvious.” So it was to a man who could think in those terms, but to how many of us, no matter what our mathematical training, would it be “obvious"?

      This was characteristic of his method of attack on all new problems. He did not have to, and would not, play the game according to the accepted rules in such cases. He would strike out a method suited to the conditions, choosing a simple method of attack from a totally unexpected direction, and yet so logical that it could not for a moment be denied. Of course, problems did arise not capable of solution even in these ingenious ways, and these he would mull over in his mind. If he finally became convinced that he could not solve them, he had no more false shame about asking for assistance than would a boy in asking help of his father for his arithmetic lesson.


      It is probable that no man ever achieved the standing in a profession that Professor had and yet was so unwilling to admit that he had it, or if he were forced to admit this, that he deserved it. His modesty was literally incurable. He came of plain people. He was neither proud nor ashamed of this origin; he simply recognized it as a fact. But that his achievements entitled him, not only to professional distinction, but that his ability and above all the charm of his personality qualified him to ornament a position in any society was something he could never be made to believe. With this same habit of mind went other characteristics. He had come up through the ranks as a mechanic, and he never felt that he was entitled to very much greater pay than a mechanic. He never permitted the StraightLine Engine Co. to pay him a salary bigger than would be expected by the foreman of a good-sized shop. He lived in the same simple way, which was very comfortable, without the slightest sign of meanness or niggardliness of any kind and yet without a penny being wasted or spent for ostentation.

      As a sort of corollary to his own beliefs and conduct in this respect he felt very strongly that other people perhaps lived better than they should, spent more on their living than they were justified in doing. The point of view that, for most men to command a position or standing of a given kind, they had to live, in a broad way, up to certain standards, never appealed to him in the least. The fact even that a man by living too simply might shut himself off from the possibility of increasing his income out of all proportion to the increase in expenditure that it required never entered his head. He had an instinctive belief that it was wrong and nothing could alter that. He never made himself a bore by preaching his own beliefs, but once in a while he would let drop a sentence that meant volumes.


      Very often a man with high ideals of conduct is spoilt for human companionship by a sense of dignity that replaces or stifles his sense of humor. It was far otherwise with Professor. He had a keen sense of humor and could illustrate his point with a short story or a witty saying in a manner characteristically American, and a good story well told was sure of at least one appreciative hearer when he was present. I have seen him almost convulsed in a quiet, chuckling laugh over something that hit his fancy especially. At the dinner in October, 1915, one man told a number of stories, mostly Southern stories about negroes. These amused Professor so much that he wrote afterward to the story-teller and asked to have some of them written out for his further enjoyment.

      Here again, perhaps, his modesty played a big part. He was never in his own mind a king amid inferiors, but one of a group from each of whom he could learn as eagerly as they could learn from him. This trait kept up his spirit of fellowship and made companionship agreeable, and leadership natural, to him.


      I have already spoken of Professor's helpfulness, but I cannot refrain from reverting to this subject again, because it was so borne in upon me during my service with him. Nearly everybody in central New York who was doing anything mechanical, and a very large percentage of those in a vastly greater region, knew or knew about Professor. They would come in, exchange greetings, introduce themselves, if necessary, and proceed at once to outline the peculiar problem or difficulty that they had in hand at the time. This all went as a matter of course. The famous sign, “Visitors Always Welcome,” engraved in the stone over the doorway, had its inception in Professor's temperament, and these people were as absolutely welcome as though they had been paid clients, though in over twenty years I never knew one of them so far to forget his dignity as to offer to pay for the help that he got. The idea that he should be paid never entered Professor's head, except when it was put there by someone else, and never stayed then. He got his pay in the interest that he took in the things brought to his attention. Sometimes a little fun of a quiet kind was mixed with the interest.

      Two cases I remember that happened while I was there; they are only typical of thousands of others. A man came in greatly obsessed with the idea that the steam engine incurred a serious loss by the necessity of starting and stopping its reciprocating parts twice during every revolution. After he had explained his cure for the trouble, Professor said: “Now, you know it does not cost anything to push on a thing, no matter how hard you push, as long as the thing does not go anywhere. Take the case of the steam in a steam boiler. It is pushing on every square inch of the boiler's surface with a hundred pounds' pressure; but as long as the boiler does not give way, it does not cost anything.” This was the simple but unshakable foundation upon which he proceeded to build up an explanation that removed the man's obsession without expense or even pain to himself.


      On another occasion a man came in, considerably excited over the amount of heat that the steam engine discharged as latent heat in the exhaust steam. On this occasion, as I guess happened pretty frequently, I broke into the conversation, because this trenched on the subject of thermodynamics, with which at that time I was quite fully loaded. This unfortunate individual had found that a pound of exhaust steam contained nearly one thousand thermal units. He had then gone to a professor in one of the universities and asked him how hot a thousand thermal units would heat four pounds of air, and the professor had calculated for him that it would heat the air to over a thousand degrees. We will hope that the questioner had not mentioned to the professor that the thousand degrees was to come from exhaust steam. With this information the man proceeded to line out a system whereby he could heat this quantity of air to that temperature and thereby increase its pressure and make it do a lot of useful work. I explained that a stern and natural law, known as the “second law of thermodynamics,” stood in the way of all such feats and that the loss which he lamented was a part of the inevitable, natural losses incident to converting heat into work; moreover, that neither his scheme nor any other could prevent this loss unless the whole fabric of our scientific knowledge collapsed into a ruin. After he had gone, I said to Professor: “Did you want me to take so much of a hand in that discussion?” He said: “Yes, that was right. Get that idea out of that poor man's head and prevent his wasting his own, or somebody else's money.”


      It is perhaps as remarkable a commentary as any upon Professor's character that in spite of this remarkable temperament, which generally implies an easygoing disposition and, therefore, poor ability in handling labor, he had a good idea of what a day's labor was and surrounded himself with subordinates who were able and willing to get it for him, always, of course, without any bulldozing, rough language or any of the other methods of the “hell-driver.” To a great extent he got it because he had inspired the men in the shop with some of his own spirit and they were willing, without much driving, to give a fair day's labor for the fair day's pay that they always got. On one occasion, however, his foundrymen struck. Not being imbued with the modern doctrines of political economy, Professor fought this strike by simply paying off his men and refusing to talk to any of their representatives, organizers or others until they were ready to go back to work again, which they eventually did on his terms. This illustrates what I might better have said earlier, that his marvelous disposition did not obscure his judgment as to what was right for himself and his stockholders and that, if he were forced to fight, he would fight—not with violence, but with great determination —for what he believed to be right. I suppose that he would turn in his grave at my saying this, because the mention of war or personal conflict was utterly abhorrent to him. The point of view that our sons might come to a worse end than to lay down their lives in defense of the rights of their country or humanity—that, in short, there could be an ethical and moral side to war—was a point of view that could not be made to enter his head. When all is said and done, while I do not believe that the world knows now or will long remember half that Professor did for the furtherance of mechanical engineering in its broader sense, nevertheless it seems to me that in him his character exceeded his achievements. As a moral force in the world he was greater, because rarer, than his achievements. I can never forget his unfailing modesty, his absolute unselfishness, his helpfulness without thought of the cost to himself and the way he never preached, but unfailingly lived, the golden rule. To these things must be added his human personality and his magnetic power of attracting to himself a large percentage of the men he met, of holding their interest and affection for long years, generally for life, and of inspiring them with high ideals of conduct without ever mentioning the subject. Remember, too, his marvelous ability to instruct men technically and to broaden and simplify their methods of thought. These seem to me to be the outstanding characteristics which, possessed by a man whose achievements equal those of the greatest engineers of our time, put him upon a pedestal so that he overtops them all in those things that truly make for greatness.

Information Sources

  • Sibley Journal of Engineering, V31 # 4, Jan. 1917, pgs. 88-96

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