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My First IBM Job - Ink Jet Engineering

Day One

On the afternoon of the first day I worked for IBM, several departments (including the one I was assigned to) were called together for a meeting. The "Functional" manager (our third level manager) told us how our departments were being reorganized and showed us some organizational charts. On the way out the door after the meeting, Lee Kerr says, "You can write that all down boys and through it away 'cause it'll all be changed in a month." Lee knew the IBM culture well!

Jet Pilot Engineering

I went to work in a group of group of mechanical, electrical and manufacturing engineers and technicians who worked on the ink jet printer. The ink jet printer was the print mechanism used in the IBM 6640 which was a printing system for the Office System/6 word processing system, . It was announced in January 1977. I arrived June 20.

The machine was had been code named Jet Pilot. All of the Lexington plant's development projects were named after Kentucky Derby winners, and so the ink jet printer was appropriately named after horse Jet Pilot. So we would more often say that we worked in Jet Pilot engineering. In fact I guess that was the official name of the group. You can see from my job listing that in September of 1977 I was a Jet Pilot PE (Product Engineer) and in 1978 I was an Ink Jet Printer PE. They were dropping the code name since the product had been released for a while.

We engineered and built the printer in Lexington and then shipped the printer to Austin, Texas where it was used in the 6640 which was part of the Office System/6 product line.

When I started working there, the machine hadn't been in production very long, and the production numbers weren't anywhere close to what IBM had projected. So we had many more parts in stock than we could use in a short period of time. At one point in time, based on the sales and production rate at the time, we had 10 year's worth of parts in stock. So if we wanted to make a change that would obsolete a part, we had to justify throwing out 10 years worth of parts. That took a pretty significant savings to justify that kind of expenditure. Consequently we weren't making many changes.

I think the first assignment I got was to look into improving the microscope that we shipped with the machine for the customer engineer used to adjust the ink stream. The holder was kind of flimsy and there wasn't any adjustment mechanism. You had to just manually slide the optic tube up and down in the holder so it was difficult to get a fine adjustment for focus. The CEs hated the thing and they had due cause.

So my assignment was to improve the thing, but we'd have to justify throwing out 3 years worth of parts. We actually did change the thing just when I was leaving Jet Pilot and that's a whole other story. It was a big screw up. One that makes me lay in bed at night once in great while and regret it. You can read all about it.

Racing Chrisi

Chrisi Jones started the same day I did. She worked in another department in Jet Pilot Engineering. Chrisi was a mechanical engineering graduate of Vanderbilt U as I recall. A smart lady and pretty attractive too. She was very personable as well. We were both assigned the job of disassembling and reassembling an ink jet printer so that we could learn about it. So we were working side by side on a workbench in the lab. As the engineers went in and out, Chrisi got lots of help whether she wanted it or not. She of course was very nice and accepted all the help she was offered. I suppose I could have had help if I had asked, but my ego wouldn't let me ask. I saw this as a race. I don't know if Chrisi did or not, but for me, who fancied himself a skilled mechanic, this was indeed a race I could not afford to loose without suffering in self esteem. I would get ahead of Chrisi and then someone would come along and help her and she'd catch up if not pass me. Then I'd get back ahead and then she'd get some help and so on. I don't remember for certain but I must have won or it would certainly have been so traumatic that I would have remembered.

Carrier Bumper

Another part that I worked on very successfully was the carrier bumper. The carrier was the unit that carried the print head back and forth. When the ink stream needed to be calibrated or the machine was stopped, the carrier went over to the side plate of the machine and stopped. There was a rubber bummer there, but it was pretty dense and didn't provide much cushioning of the stopping of the carrier. So I was assigned the job to come up with something better.

There were suggestions of some kind of piston type shock absorber but that would be really complex and expensive. Some kind of foam would not provide enough distance in the deceleration. Somehow, I came up with the idea of a bumper with fingers sticking out to slow down the carrier. There were maybe 10 or 12 fingers about 3/8 to 1/2 an inch long and maybe 3/16 of an inch in diameter. They would buckle as the carrier moved into them absorbing the energy very nicely.

A big concern that I had was that the fingers would take a permanent set if the carrier sat against the bumper with the fingers collapsed for some extended period of time. So I talked with the plastics engineers and found out what plastics were most resistant to taking a permanent set.

I don't remember how I determined the length of the fingers or the diameter ,or the number of them. I think I did some kind of calculations but there was also some guessing that went into it. I know I had a model built and I did some testing with it. I'm not sure how much I modified it as a result of the testing, but it wasn't long before we went into production with it. There were plenty of people who thought it looked funny, but it did the job and it was pretty cheap. I'm not sure I realized just what a success it was at the time. As I think back on it, I'm fairly proud of that work.

The guy who moved himself to another department.

Not too long after I went to work for IBM, I decided that I did not like the work I was doing, and I wanted to transfer to Facilities Engineering. As I talked about with Lee Kerr (a colleague with lots of stories) he told me about a guy he knew who was not getting along with his boss. He had worked for another manager and they had gotten along well together so he wanted to be transferred back to the other manager's department. His current boss wouldn't have it. So, one day he got some moving tickets and had himself moved to his former bosses department (at that time in the plant, you put these pink "IBM" cards on your desk, file cabinets, etc. that were to be moved, and the movers, who were working constantly in the plant, would move your stuff). So, this guy doesn't show for work for a couple of days, or so his boss thought. So he calls the guy's home, his wife answers and tells the boss that the guy is at work. The boss says no he's not. The wife says yes he is, I just talked with him a few minutes ago. So the boss says, "Well if he calls again, you tell him to call me." So the guy eventually calls his former boss and the boss says, "Where are you?" The guy says, "In my office." The boss says, "No you aren't, I was just there." The guy says, "Yes I am." Anyway it finally got communicated what was going on, and the manager's got the guy officially moved. In those days, you just about couldn't get fired from IBM. The old saying was that the only way to get fired was to have sex with the plant manager's secretary on the front lawn, and even that might not do it. I'm sure the manager's knew it was much easier to just transfer the guy rather than fight the situation.

Bill D's getting me out of hosting hiring candidates.

Soon after I went to work for IBM, I was sitting across the hall from Bill Dahlstrom. Bill was a manufacturing engineer and a nice guy. He had me come out and help harvest his tobacco one time. We got along pretty well.

I was driving a 1963 Ford Falcon. This was 1977 so the car was 13 years old. In those days cars didn't last as long, and a 13 year old car, was an old car. It really didn't look that bad. It had a little bit of rust on it, but not too bad. One of the things they had "new hires" do was to host candidate employees - meet them for breakfast, drive them around to their various interviews, and generally make sure they were where they needed to be, when they needed to be. When Bill Dahlstrom heard that I was doing that, and that I was driving my Falcon, he threw a fit. I didn't see what the big deal was. After that, I never got another hosting assignment, and I believe that Dahlstrom did something (either called HR, or talked with my manager or something) so that I never got anymore of those assignments. I didn't really care, because I didn't really like doing them anyway, but I'm still surprised how worked up Dahlstrom got over that and maybe held a bit of a grudge because he thought my car was shabby.

Choking Bill D. with cigars.

Bill loved to get a bargain. He also hated cigar smoke, in fact it made him sick. I decided one day to have some fun with Bill. I told Lee Kerr Bill's peculiarities and that I knew Bill to be looking for a pickup truck. I suggested that Lee tell Bill that he knew of a really good deal on a pickup truck and then when Bill came into Lee's office and started asking all kinds of questions about this truck, we'd each light up cigars and get some smoke rolling in the office. Bill would be so engrossed in the possibility of getting a good deal that he'd miss the fact that we were lighting up cigars that were going to make him sick. Sure enough, it worked just like I predicted. Soon enough, Bill was fussing at us because he was getting sick from the cigars. This was a pretty dirty trick that my conscious wouldn't let me do today, but it did prove how engrossed Bill would get when he thought he might get a good deal.

Getting chewed out by Ginger for smoking a cigar.

When I started with IBM in 1977, smoking inside at work wasn't any big deal. There really weren't a lot of people who smoked, but the ones who did, were free to do it most anywhere. Most smoking was cigarettes but once in a while a guy would light up a cigar. I smoked cigars once in a while though almost never at work. For some reason one day I decided to light one up in my office. The wall between my office and the adjacent one didn't go all the way to the ceiling, it was just a plywood partition that was about seven feet high. So when I lit up, the smoke went over to Ginger's office. Pretty soon she was standing at my door, telling me (not asking me) to put it out. I did put it out as I knew cigars could be offensive, but Ginger didn't improve her reputation any by her actions.

Lemon and Sue

This story is better spoken than written, but its one of my favorites. I worked with Lemon Cooper. Lemon was from Alabama, a graduate of Tuskegee Institute. Lemon had his own accent and expressions. I don't know if they were typical of Alabamans or Tuskegee men, but he definitely had a bit different sound.

Sue Johnson, was from Eastern Kentucky.. Pikeville (pronounced "Pokvul"), and she had a strong Eastern Kentucky flavor in her speech. One day, I heard of her saying, "Lemon, wha cant you tock rat?" As I say, its better said than written, but you get the point.

Julian Bates

Julian was a local Kentucky guy. Another technician who'd worked his way up from the assembly line. He like to joke around, and especially by saying seemingly philosophical things. For example, he asked me, "Do you know why they lock up crazy people in institutions?"  I said no, and he replied, "Because there's more of them than there are of us."  He would laugh and then repeat aspects of it like I didn't get it, or needed to be reminded of it, or maybe he was just re-enjoying the humor of it. He once told me about planting a fence row. He had bought some fence pole seeds and was waiting for them to come up. He had all kinds of junk like that.

I heard once that when they had an open house for the assembly line, he was telling people who came in for tours all kinds of crazy stuff about the product, never letting on that he was just being goofy.

John Barnes

John was a strange fellow. He was a genius I guess, but also very strange. He talked in a queer sort of way. Sort of a high pitched whiney voice with and intellectual lilt. He came in one day and was commenting that he had read a very interesting book over the weekend. I said, ?Oh what was that?? He said it was a dictionary written in Hungarian. OK John.

John rode his bike to work quite often. There was a story that went around about John wearing snow shoes to walk to work one day. He leaned them up against the outside of the building while he was at work. The problem was, this was Lexington, Kentucky. We seldom got more than a few inches of snow on the ground and I guess this particular time John snowshoed, there was just a few inches. Hardly the need for snowshoes.

John was a spelunker and he told me about getting trapped in a cave one weekend. He was eventually rescued. I don't remember the details. It was just a typical John story.

The guy who had his wife drop him off at the airport, and his girlfriend pick him up at the airport.

A guy that I worked with in Jet Pilot told me he had his wife drop him off at the airport as if he was going on a trip, and then would have his girlfriend pick him up an hour later. He'd spend a day or two with his girlfriend and then have her drop him off at the airport, and have his wife pick him up an hour later. Back from the trip honey!