Sunday, August 4, 2013

Remembering Hub

This is the first of a pair of posts on my first 'real job', after I finished all my schooling.  For some strange reason, my brain has been poked to remember various stories from the early years of my career (mostly by reading your blogs, or your comments on mine).  Anyway, I hope you enjoy. . .


When I took my first job, fresh out of college, I went to work for a wheel company here in the town where I have lived ever since (and right next door to the town where the college was located).  I will forego retelling yet another time the standard joke about wheels and engineering and 'making 'em round', or the one about re-inventing the wheel. . .

It was a good job, and surprisingly interesting, what for being a small-to-midsize automotive supplier company.  We had some very bright, and very interesting folks populating our engineering department in those days (including a guy who would later be my boss, who was a collector of antique bicycles; more than once, I went on rides with him, with him riding an 1890s-vintage high-wheeler; but, I digress), although you might not have suspected it, at first glance.

Our engineering office was carved out of the front third-or-so of a pole-barn which was sort-of 'out-the-back-door-and-across-the-railroad-tracks' from the main company offices.  And even those fancy 'front-door' offices had a distinct 50s-era feel to them.

The back two-thirds of the 'engineering building' was mostly a test lab, filled with various and sundry test equipment, which ran more-or-less continuously, to provide validation for our engineering designs.  One of the more, um, noteworthy test machines was colloquially referred to as the 'bullwheel' machine.  Conceptually, it was quite simple - a wheel, with a tire mounted on it, was fixed to an axle and pressed into a rotating drum at a load and inflation much higher than it would ever see from being installed on a vehicle.  The idea was that, if the wheel could endure x-number of revolutions at the increased load, it would never fail in normal road usage.  Bullwheels came in two sizes - passenger-car and heavy-truck.

The, uh, exciting feature of the bullwheel machines were the tires that were mounted on the wheels which were the actual objects being tested.  The tires were just part of the test fixture, so to speak; just a means of transferring the load between the drum and the wheel.  And, in the course of running those wheels through a million or more revolutions (just for reference - for a passenger car, 1000 revolutions per mile is a nice round estimate) at an increased load and over-inflated, those tires, which were generally 'factory rejects' from the tire factories, would, from time to time, explode, rather like a very stout balloon that has been squeezed one too many times.  And you can believe that, when a tire explodes, it makes a considerable noise (or, as we would say, in technical engineering language, 'a helluva bang').  Especially the heavy-truck tires.

(An aside - one of the first things they had me do, after I hired in, was to run a calculation on a heavy-truck tire, mounted on a 'split-ring-type' wheel.  They showed me where to look up the dimensions of the tire and wheel, and told me what pressure the tire was inflated to.  The question was: 'If the tire/wheel is lying flat on the ground, and the split-ring is improperly installed, if the tire blows out, how high in the air will the split ring fly?'  I ran through the calculations, made some assumptions about how much of the stored energy from the inflated tire was actually transferred into the flying split-ring, and found the answer, which was somewhere above 200 feet.  Which was the right answer, so they let me keep my job.  No, the real point was: be very, very careful around split-ring truck wheels; if an improperly-installed split-ring, weighing roughly 50lb., will fly 200 feet into the air when it blows, your head won't slow it down all that much if it gets in the way.  Impression duly made.)

Now, when I first started working there, the 'engineering computer system' consisted of a small HP computer in a rack (I'm not sure, but it's possible my graphing calculator has more compute-power than it did), with a few peripherals, like a magnetic-cartridge reader, and a paper-tape reader.  The 'computer room' was a glorified storeroom off the end of the engineering office, which was separated from the test lab by a relatively thin wall.  One evening, I was working late, on a project that had considerable, um, urgency from corporate higher-ups.  I was deeply dialed-in to my computer screen and the task at hand, and my conceptual universe had shrunken to a small tube between my face and the screen.  Suddenly, on the other side of the wall, a tire blew on one of the heavy-truck bullwheels.  It was a tremendous explosion - to liken it to a cannon going off would not be inapt (see above re 'a helluva bang') - and it happened maybe 12 feet from where I was sitting, on the other side of the thin wall (did I mention that the wall was really thin?).  I don't remember exactly what I was working on at the time, but every nerve in my entire body was instantly frayed.  I sat there for a few minutes, my body buzzing and quite literally trembling.  Finally, I managed to collect myself enough to save the files I'd been working on, turn off the computer, and go home. . .

Another time, we had a computer consultant - most probably from Xavier's former employer - in the office for a week or so, and the big-truck bullwheel blew while he was deeply focused on his computer screen.  Slowly, he pushed away from the desk, turned and looked at us, and asked, "Does that happen often?"  We assured him that it wasn't all that common, no more often than every two or three days.  Since he was going to be spending a week with us, I'm not sure he took that information as comforting.


But that's not really what I set out to tell you all about (although it does a nice job of 'setting the scene' or providing a bit of background color).  Recently, I received an email from one of my old co-workers from there (there was a whole group of us who all hired in together within a couple years of each other, in the late 70s; we still keep in touch, and even have annual reunions).  I'm not sure exactly what jogged his memory, but somewhere in his email, he made mention of a man we all called 'Hub' (because his last name was 'Hubbard', although, when you think about it, it was kinda cool that he worked for a wheel company) (another aside - there was another guy, surnamed Tuttle, who was simply called 'Tut'; I'm not sure anyone knew his first name - in inter-office memos, and the employee newsletter, he was referred to as 'Tut Tuttle') (If anyone is inclined to compile a list of surnames whose first syllables could be humorous nicknames, you have my blessing, and obviously, WAAAYYY too much time on your hands.) (and I obviously need to learn a little self-control when it comes to the proper used of parentheses).

Hub was one of the more, um, eccentric people I've ever met.  By the time I started working there, he was already in his 70s, and had been mostly-retired for several years.  But the company still provided him with a small lab, off the back door of the engineering office, to which he would come at more-or-less random intervals, a few times a week, to tinker.  It was understood that no-one went into Hub's lab unless invited by Hub himself, and it was the object of considerable speculation among the younger engineers as to what, exactly, was in Hub's lab, and what, exactly, he did in there.  The older guys had known him for years, and regarded him as something like their beloved crazy uncle.

Hub was an inventor.  I don't know how many patents he may have held, but it was quite a few - he was a fixture at the company's annual Patent Luncheon.  I know that he had several patents relating to electronic controls.  He was one of those edisonian 'creative-genius-types' who just thought stuff up, and tinkered in his lab to try to turn his ideas into real machinery, while the company pretty much left him alone, except to gather a group whenever he emerged from his lab, saying he had something he wanted to show us.

In person, Hub was every bit the eccentric genius.  His speech was nearly unintelligible, mostly because of his fondness for cigars; he wouldn't remove his cigar from his mouth just because he had something to say.

The cigars also figured into my own most, uh, endearingly oddball memory of him.  I was talking to him one time, and I noticed that his two front teeth stood almost straight out from his upper jawbone, like a pair of knife-edges, perpendicular to the 'plane' of his face, in a small 'upside-down-V' shape, almost like a tunnel.  I thought it odd, and later mentioned it to one of the older guys (probably Tut).  He said, "Oh, those are his false teeth.  He made them himself."  He made his own false teeth?  "Yeah; he couldn't find anybody that would make 'em the way he wanted 'em, so he taught himself how to make his own."  Wow, cool!  "Yeah, he made the front teeth stand out like that to hold his cigars."

After I'd been with the company for a year or so, the day finally came when Hub approached me at the coffee station one afternoon, saying, "Come with me" (at least, I think that's what he said).  I don't know what else I was working on at the time, but whatever it was, it was instantly on hold for the next however-long-it-took.  Hub took me through the back door of the engineering office, down a hallway heading toward the test lab, to the mysterious door with the small sign telling the curious that admittance was only by invitation of H. Hubbard.  He opened the door and ushered me inside.

Hub's lab was surprisingly small - maybe 12 feet square - and utterly dark, except for a single high-intensity lamp which lit the area he was immediately working at.  The walls were surrounded by lab benches, which in turn were all covered with assorted gadgetry and components.  I wish to heck I could remember what-all he showed me - it was a mix of some of his favorite inventions from bygone years, and some of his current pet projects, and it was all fascinating.  The tour of his lab lasted maybe 20 minutes or half-an-hour, and it left both Hub and me beaming by the time it was finished.  I thanked him profusely and returned to the real world of my mundane projects.

Hub died a few years later, and I'm told that his house was also full of odd little gadgets of his own design and manufacture.  I don't know what ever became of the contents of his lab; it wasn't long after he died that we moved to a new, fancy-modern office building on the edge of town (with freeway visibility), and I only went back to the old pole-barn a few times after that.  As I write this, I'm not even sure the building still stands.

But I've never forgotten Hub, and I'd like to think that he has inspired me ever since, to expand my conceptual universe just a bit, to be creative and think 'outside the box' from time to time. . .