We were building an IFF for the Northrop airplane and it turned out that they didn’t specify it right, and the plane had a high voltage in it and it would arc over at very high altitudes. And so it was too late in the design phase to restart over again, so we had to find a way to reduce the voltage at high altitudes.
So we needed a switch that would was altitude sensitive. So you know the barometer has a…I mean, you know not a mercury barometer, but an aneroid barometer. (Dad was getting at the fact that an aneroid barometer was mechanical and would interface with a switch. —Ed.)
Well, we went all over the place looking for things, and the problem was, we couldn’t fit it in the space we had available. We had an Air Force guy who said, “There’s a guy in Kansas City that has a device that may do the job.” So we fly out to Kansas City, and that’s where I saw the marks on the buildings where they said the floods were. (Referring to the Great Flood of 1951. —Ed.)
But this guy, we thought we were going to some business….We had tried to buy these things and he didn’t want to sell them the way we wanted to buy them. So we go out there and we find out he has taken over an old bank building, you know one of these little buildings along that used to be a branch bank or something. And his office was the safe! We walk in and this guy had this device that was…all it was was an aneroid element in a case, and it had two contacts: a contact on the case, and a contact on the aneroid element. And when the thing…and it was sprung like a clicker. So that when it hit a certain altitude it would “click” and it would contact and make contact. Perfect!
The thing is, in order to…he couldn’t design them to altitude, so he had a thing where he would wear away with a wire head…he put it in a lathe and they would take a wire brush or something and they would erode it in a vacuum jar (laughing) so that he would be able to set it to the altitudes that we wanted.
I was sitting — and he had this desk in his bank wall, which wasn’t much bigger than this car, and…so I had to sit outside his office in the hallway. And I’m talking to him all of a sudden I see ants — termites! — coming up my leg of my chair. It was…it was the wildest thing I have ever had come across, this guy.
So we said to him, “Well, we deliver our equipment in batches of 12 a month. We’d like you to send us your things at a rate of 12 a month.” He says, “Oh no, I can’t do that.” I says, “What do you mean?” He says, “Well,” he says, “I have to make them…I’ll make them all at once.” “No, we don’t want ‘em all…” “No no.” He says, “You know what? You see this place. I may not be here, and I don’t wanna…I’m not gonna do that.”
He was that kind of guy.
Well, we said, “It’s gotta meet mil specs.” “No. I don’t know what mil specs are,” he says. “No mil specs. This is it. You get it, you take it or leave it.” (Laughing.) We could not, you know, the Air Force would not let us buy it, even though they were…they would have worked beautifully.
So, we ended up finding some other device that was four times the size, and we were able to fit it in. But this guy was nut…he was, he was drinking gruel out of a cup while we were talking to him.
And out in the front of the building were these like 6 ladies…doing… making these things. They were neighborhood women, and he says to us, “Look, I can’t tell…these women, you know, they come here to make a few extra bucks,” he says. “I don’t know when they’ll, you know, they may get pregnant, they may do this, they may do that, and I can’t tell you.” (Laughing.)
But here it was…here he had [it] and it was like, if the thing that we eventually bought was $40, his was $9 or something. You know, it was cheap, it was…it would…it did the job and everything but we couldn’t use it. He wouldn’t meet mil spec. He wouldn’t qualify it for mil specs or anything.