Looking Forward Through the Eyes of Research
NATURE VS. PEOPLE
By CHARLES F. KETTERING, Vice-President of General Motors in Charge of Research
Delivered before a joint meeting of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and manufacturers of the region, at Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana, March 4, 1943
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 532-538.
WHEN Dean Potter asked me if I would speak to this very distinguished audience. I told him I would, because I felt such a great obligation to him for the work he has done in connection with the Engineering Department which he heads. I felt that anything he might ask me to do was minor compared to what he is doing in that work.
His introduction reminded me of a great engineer here in Indiana (whom you may not recognize as such), by the name of Joe Cook, and I think perhaps Dean Potter's introduction will permit me to tell the story.
Joe had invented a shower bath in which you could take a shower without undressing or getting wet. He set it up on the stage with all the blueprints and everything, and finally got a fellow from off the street to come in and try it. He turned on the water, and the fellow came out completely soaked. Joe examined the valves very carefully, and said, "The only thing I can think of is that I must have overestimated my ability." I am afraid Dean Potter has also over-estimated my ability.
Today, community meetings such as this have a very great significance, because in times of trouble such as we are in now, it is a good thing to get together and discuss our common problems. Regardless of what Dean Potter has said, I am coming to you as a research man. Now, there is a lot of mystery about the word "research." We say our research is an effort to try to find out what we are going to do when we can't keep on doing what we are doing now—and we all know we're going to need it. We are not going to keep on doing what we are doing now.
We say research men are professional amateurs. That is, they are amateurs in that they are doing a thing for the first time. They are professional, because they know they are going to have a lot of trouble with it. So, I want you to know that I am coming to you as a research man.
There are two conceptions of research men. First, that there are highbrows and, second, that they are nuts. I try to strike about halfway between the two.
The thing that we call industrial research is similar to a great bridge across a river. On one bank is the pure science side and on the other is the product or the customer's side. In between is habit, doubt and uncertainty. So if we are able to bridge that river, we think we do a fairly good job. It is not an easy job. It is not a spectacular job as most people think. It is one of almost perpetual failure, and we say the only time that we don't want to fail is the last time we try it—because that is bad.
I am one of those foolish people who believe that they can teach people to be inventors. It is a common saying that as a rule the more educated a person is, the less likely he is to be an inventor. That is exactly the way it shouldn't be. The more education and the more training he has, the more likely he should be an inventor. I have worked for some time to try to find out why that is so, and I think it is simple. From the time we are six years old until we graduate from college, we have had to be examined at least three or four times a year, and if we fail, it is terrible. So I think educated people are more sensitive—more allergic to failure—and inventors can't be allergic to it, because research is almost all failure. Consequently, if I can teach a young man how to fail intelligently, I think I can make an inventor out of him. I know he is going to fail every time he tries a new thing, but the thing to do is not to get discouraged but find out why you fail and go after it again.
Now we talk about these great research laboratories and great engineering schools and all that sort of thing as though they were material things—something "out yonder"—but after all you don't solve any problems in research laboratories. You solve them in people's heads. The reason we have to have these large research laboratories with all of apparatus and scientific equipment is because that is how difficult it is to get an idea through a quarter of an inch of skull bone.
The only thing this marvelous equipment and instrumentation is for is to get the idea through the human head. That's where the problem is solved.
We have a very, very definite procedure in our laboratory, and that is, let the problem be the boss. Don't say, "I am going to make the engine this way" or, "I am going to make the gears that way," because you are going to make them the way engines or gears like to be made. If you don't, you are going to get a poor engine and a bum set of gears. Set up an experiment, and let the engine say, "I don't like the piston that is in there. Put another one in there."
A professor from one of the great universities came to me one time and said, "I have just come from a certain laboratory and tested one of your Diesel engines. It is the most efficient one I have ever seen. I want to talk to your thermodynamics expert."
I said, "Professor, I am sorry to tell you we don't even know what that word means around here, let alone have an expert. But if you want to know how we developed that engine, I can tell you."
I took him back in the dynamometer room, and said, "Let's run the engine today. Write down on this blackboard what it does, and tomorrow we will put in a new piston and run it again. The engine will say, "The piston you had in yesterday was better than this one." Then you change it the other way, and it finally gets better and better, and then worse again. That turning point we call the optimum, so we plug it at that. Then we change something else."
He said, "Isn't that a tedious way to do it?"
I said, "It is, but unfortunately that is the only way we know how to do it."
There are two sides to the question of manufacturing and merchandising material. One is before the sample is made and the other is after the sample is made. Research represents the work that has to be done to make the sample. Once the sample is made, you can easily get a million more made just like it. The procedure of duplication is so well known in the art of manufacturing that we forget that the minute you step on the other side of the thing—over to the sample-making side—the procedure is diametrically opposite—about 99.9 per cent opposite, I would say—from the normal manufacturing and merchandising procedures. So you can see that in a situation such as this, it becomes especially important that we have a healthy understanding of the process of making samples. Looking forward into the world after this war, the importance of understanding the procedure of sample-making is one of the most important single things we have to do.
You know, this fellow Hitler has been the most expensive man that has ever lived, talking in dollars and cents and human lives. This is the second world war. The first world war killed millions of people and cost millions of dollars. This war will surpass many times in casualties and cost that of World War I.
Now why do we do this? It seems to me when you get a repetition of this kind of catastrophe twice within 25 years, we ought to go back and analyze what is wrong with our thinking that permits such things to happen. Well, we say we are trying to preserve our mode of life. In the other war we fought to make the world safe for democracy, and immediately after the war was over, democracy almost disappeared from the face of the earth. There is something wrong about it. The thing I think that is wrong is that we don't recognize where we are on the time characteristics of the human family.
The human species has been on earth a couple of million years. We will discount 50 per cent and say it's a million years. We became conscious of ourselves, and we wereable to make marks on the walls of the caves only some six or seven thousand years ago. We came that long distance, from away back yonder up to the time when we were able to make marks on the cave, without government, without education, without religion, without newspapers, without radios, without anything. This instinctive education that we have is the most important single thing to take into consideration when you begin to look to the after-war period. We ought to recognize what it is.
We have only been able to read and write for a few thousand years. Only 400 years ago a great Polish astronomer evolved the idea that the sun stood still and the earth moved. Just a short while ago Columbus discovered America. We are thinking in too short a time-cycle in the changes of human beings and human reactions. A fundamental of all of nature's products has been continuity, and, therefore, this old specific instinctive education says, "Don't change—keep on going at what you are." So when you begin to make changes, we can't wish ourselves out of this world into a new world in a few years. It can't be done that fast.
We have two kinds of people who talk about the post-war world—those who look into a crystal ball and see a world entirely different from the thing we have, and those who look down to a great cold place where worlds go when they're finished. Those two types of thinking are like the electric switch. They are either on or off. Again, I don't believe either one of them is right. I don't believe we will have a new world, a different world, and I don't believe we will have a world that will go all to pot. I believe that it will depend very much on our recognition of what the factors are we have to deal with after this war is over, and the one important factor is the rate at which human beings can change their point of view.
Now we sometimes do a little chest hammering and think of the great things we have accomplished in science and engineering and so forth, without recognizing that the world was all here before we came. The plants and the animals and everything else were all growing here, and there was not much trouble in the world. Only the human beings are having trouble. The so-called civilized nations of the world are the only ones in trouble. And I think that much of this trouble is due to the fact that we over-estimate our ability again as to what we can do.
I have spent some time working on the use of the spectroscope, the means of identifying extremely small quantities. We sometimes think we have done a fine job—but I also come from down in the hills of Ohio where we used to hunt a little bit, and I think of an old hound dog who showed up the spectroscope in tracing small quantities. He would come down a road where 10 people had walked and turn down the right lane and go into the house where his master was. He did that just by smell. Of course, he was a dumb animal. He had no college degree or anything else.
We have been flying for 40 years. The birds and bees and butterflies have been flying for hundreds of thousands of years. I have taken carrier pigeons and homing pigeons many times from Springfield and Dayton when I was going to Detroit and before I got into Detroit I let them loose. There was no way they could see which route they had come, but the ones that came from Springfield went to Springfield and the ones that came from Dayton went to Dayton. They are great navigators, but, of course, again they are dumb animals.
The bat is a very old creature. He has this navigation business down fine. If you take two wheels revolving in opposite directions, and blindfold the bat, he will fly through
the wheels without ever hitting a spoke. He has been able to do that for centuries. Of course, he is a dumb animal. We don't want to think that everything in this world has been created by us, and that we are masters of nature.
Now going back to this sample-making, one of the biggest problems that we have to work with in research is to pick out the proper things on which to research. You can take an encyclopedia and start a research project on every title in it, but that isn't the thing that's important. The thing to do is to pick out the fundamental, the controlling thing—how much of this thing don't we know? For instance, somebody said that he hoped we could make an automobile that would weigh 500 pounds, go 100 miles on a gallon of gasoline and do 75 miles an hour. You start to work on that, but that won't do you any good.
You have to find out first why you haven't got that kind of automobile—and then you won't be working on automobiles at all. You will be working on metallurgy to get a metal that will be good enough to do that—or on chemistry to get a fuel good enough, and so on.
Our organization has done a great deal of work on Diesel engines. I spent from 1920 to 1930 simply studying, going around that circle, around and around, to find out what the real problem was. When we got through we found some very interesting things.
The only reason we didn't have Diesel engines the way we wanted to have them was that nobody wanted to step up and take the responsibility of making them. Nobody wanted to attempt making parts to a degree of accuracy that had never before been attempted. We had to make parts that had accuracies and fits of only a fifth-of-a-tenth-of-a-thousandth of an inch, that is one fifty-thousandth of an inch. To give you an idea just how small that is, if you pull a hair out of your head and you slice it up into 150 equal slices, each slice will represent a fifty-thousandth of an inch. Of course, when you had to start to make pieces that were interchangeable to that degree of limits, nobody wanted to step up to it. It was a difficult thing, but, nevertheless, that is what you had to do if you were going to get the thing that you wanted.
Now on the manufacturing side of sample-making we have our industry setup where you keep the cost of everything—every operation and so forth—your forecast, your budget. You do everything in a perfectly normal way. That constitutes in volume of business 99.9 per cent of the total expenditures. But, step over to the pre-sample side of industry, and you can't budget, you can't forecast, you can't be definite about anything. When somebody says, "When do you expect to get this done?", you have to say, "I don't know."
"What is it going to be worth when you get it finished?"
"I don't know. I hope it does so-and-so." You can't say specifically, because you don't know.
When you get down to finding out what you do know and what you don't know, there is so much more on the "don't know side" than on the "know side" that you don't like to call attention to it.
We have been very smart in hiding our ignorance. I used to have symposiums on pure physics at the University of Michigan, and usually the boys would stop in our laboratory. They would say, "Why are you practical folks interested in this very pure science?"
"Well," I said, "We are interested in physics as the basis of all of our engineering. We don't know very much about physics in this laboratory."
They said, "Why don't you talk to us? We know everything about physics."
"Well," I said, "You may know everything about physics, but I don't think you can tell it to me. I don't think you know it in a form that I could tune in on at all." "Tell me one of the things that is worrying you." "One of the things that has always worried me is why I can see through a pane of glass."
"Well," they said, "that's the simplest thing in the world. It's because glass is transparent."
If you look in the dictionary, you will see that "transparent" is "the quality of something you can see through." So if you can say the same thing in two words that don't sound alike, then you are smart. "You can see through a pane of glass, because you can see through a pane of glass." That is what they say when they get through with it.
I said, "Here is another thing that worries me. Why is it that when I rub my hands together they get warm?" "Well, that is perfectly simple—on account of friction." "Well, what is friction?" We argued for 15 minutes, and we came to the conclusion that friction is the thing that makes your hands warm when you rub them together. In other words, we don't know a single thing about it.
I am working on a little job at Antioch College to try to find out why grass is green. Well, that doesn't sound very good academically. So the boys say they are working on chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is Latin for the green in green leaves. We don't know anything more about chlorophyll in Latin than we do in English. But, you see, it sounds so much better. We set up a lot of barriers here of what we think we know.
Going back to this sample-making, we had occasion a few years ago to work on a piece of apparatus that required a simple flat spring, the simplest piece of material that you could think of mechanically. The space left for us to put this spring in had already been fixed. The reason it was turned over to us was because the spring that they had put in was breaking. They gave it to us to see if we could put a spring in there that wouldn't break.
We studied limitations of bending, and we tried out various experiments. We sent out directions for that piece of steel to six or seven of our best spring-makers and asked them what you could expect of that spring, giving the amount of flection and so forth. Within five or 10 per cent, they all came back with the estimate that at about 2000 flections the spring would be expected to break. Well, that wasn't enough.
So we said, "Will you make us up some pieces and identify them with secret markings so we can't tell them? We will give them a treatment and send them back to you and you try them again." We had said before that, "Do you think there is anything that can be done to help that?"
Everybody said, "No."
We gave them our surface treatment and sent them back, and they went through 2,000,000 cycles without breaking. That is a slight increase in percentage—about 100,000 per cent—which is considerably better than the interest rate at the bank nowadays. Nevertheless, there was that piece of mechanism that was about as simple as anything you can think about, and yet we were able to make that sort of improvement, not because we were smart, but because we had to do it, and, therefore, we tried things off the beaten path.
I can tell you many stories like that. There is a material known as extreme pressure lubricant, and I would like to tell you the way it came to be developed. I have always been doubtful of lubricants. You have been down to the Fairs andput your finger in the oil and you have seen the glass tubes turned upside down and heard them talk about the "body of the oil" and so forth. I always suspected that such things had very little to do with how good lubricating oils were.
We had to build a testing machine one time, and after it was done, I said, "We have a good machine here. Let's play a game with it. The game we are going to play is this: This machine now belongs to your worst enemy. It is a very dangerous weapon. He can kill you and your family with it. Will you prescribe for me the worst thing with which he can lubricate it? That is a part of the game. You are allowed to pick out the lubricant."
Well, the chemists went to work. They said, "We've got it"—and they used ether, about as thin a thing as you can get. "We would like to see you lubricate this dangerous weapon of yours with this kind of lubricant."
We had tested the engine using regular oil and it would stand about 6000 pounds per square inch. "All right," I said, "we are going to try it. Now you fellows write down on this chart what you think it will do." I think somebody had nerve enough to say 300 pounds. We started to load it up very gently and carefully, and to make a long story short, we ran out of weights at 30,000 pounds. That was with an absolutely dry bearing, carrying five times the load that the best lubricating oils we had would do. I said, "That would have been a swell thing to give your enemy, wouldn't it?"
Now why was that? We asked the oil fellows to come in and we showed it to them. They said, "The only thing that makes us sore is that we didn't do it. This is our business, not yours."
I said, "You couldn't do it. You wouldn't allow anybody to come into your laboratory and question that. That is the foundation upon which your business was built, and if anyone questioned that, he wouldn't have kept his job. You would have fired him."
That is why we have to step outside the profession so often to get the new thing done. We know so much about the troubles within a thing that we won't try the thing. We know in advance that it won't work. That is the reason why you have this hypoid rear axle doing a lot of things with machinery today that could never have been done had it not been for those extreme pressure lubricants.
The same thing is true, not only of this new type of lubricating oil, which within a few years after the war will be common all over the country, but also of another new type of lubricant we have developed. When we began to run Diesel motors and trucks, the oil had to be changed every 1000 miles. That meant changing it every day. They ordinarily drive 1000 to 1200 miles a day, and that meant they would have to change the oil about four o'clock every afternoon. They didn't want to do that.
We started out to see if we couldn't help them out. We developed some additives that we put in the oil—so-called, anti-oxygents, or detergents (detergent is a fancy name for soap). Ordinary soap is a detergent that takes off the dirty So we put a cleaner in these oils. Instead of running 1000 miles, they would now run 100,000 miles. But I couldn't get anybody interested in it. Everybody would say, "That is all applesauce. You can't do a thing like that."
I went to the president of our organization and said, "Will you let me say that we are going into the lubricating oil business?"
He said, "Yes, if you don't take it too seriously." So I got one of the great oil companies to send representatives to our laboratories.
I said to them, "Over on this bench is an engine which has failed after 1000 miles with your old oil. Here is another one that is still running after 100,000 miles with our new oil."
These fellows said, "The trouble is that your engine isn't any good—there's nothing wrong with our oil."
I would like to hire you. How much money are you making?" I asked.
He said, "Ten thousand dollars a year."
I said, "I will give you $25,000"—and here is a drawing board. Now, you design an engine that is good."
He said, "I don't know anything about engines."
"I knew that," I said, "but I wanted to get it from you direct."
I said, "Now, here are two engines that are just as nearly alike as mass production machinery can make them. The only difference is the oil in them, and you must admit it is very spectacular."
Then I said, "You fellows may not know this, but we are going into the lubricating business ourselves. In fact, we have a semi-works plant already running. Would you like to see it?"
They said, "Yes, we would. Have you figured out how much it's going to cost?"
I said, "Yes, we've figured it out." I said to my boys "Bring it in."
Well, they brought in our works plant—one wash tub and a paddle. I said, "The difference between the old oil and the new oil is this: The old oil in these 15 gallon cans will run 1000 miles. We take these 15 gallons and put it in the wash tub, add two tumblers full of this and one tumbler of that, and then it is the kind of oil that will run for 100,000 miles."
Well, with anything as easy as that, you would have thought they'd begin dickering for the rights to it then and there. But, no—
They said, "We can't do that."
I said, "Why not?"
They said, "We don't like the color."
That is the sort of pre-sample trouble we have. But I've learned that we must not ever let these troubles dampen our optimism. If you want to be optimistic, you have to be optimistic knowing that your optimism can be carried through. And, therefore, I feel when I see all of this great work being done now that something of lasting good is bound to come from it. Everybody is trying new things that were never done before. We are doing these things because a man named Hitler had an idea—a bad idea, an idea that was dangerous to the world. What I would like to know is, why is it that we can't get some good ideas that will keep us just as busy as we are now fighting these bad ideas.
I have a theory about that. There isn't any school—grade school, high school, university or any other type of school—that doesn't have a course in history. I think it is all right to have courses in history, but history is something we can't do anything about. Things that happened yesterday or the day before yesterday or 100 years ago are done. You can't change them a bit. We have been so used to studying history that we are always looking back where we came from. We don't figure where we are going. Now, if you drove an automobile that way, you would have the steering wheel looking out the back end and would be admiring the scenery and the road you had just travelled. That is exactly why we have got into the mess we're in now. We have been looking backward and studying history too much. I want to turn around and study the future.
i think we ought to pay a lot more attention to the future. I shouldn't be as much interested as you younger folks are but since I expect to spend all the rest of my life in the future, I want to be at least reasonably sure of what kind of future it's going to be. i have been trying to think of some new kind of samples we can make.
A lot of post-war planners ask. "What is the post-war automobile going to look like?"
I don't know. We are too busy with war work to worry about it at all. The only thing I know is that if we keep competitive business, you and I will have the best of everything that the world can produce, whether it is automobiles, radios, or whatever you want. We are being shaken out of a lot of ruts in this war and it is a cinch we won't go back into the old ruts. We will make some new ones. Maybe that's why we have to have wars—to get out of the old ruts. I don't know. Nevertheless, you are going to have the best that can be produced, provided we keep competitive business.
A lot of people show us nice pictures of plastic automobiles. I don't know whether you want a plastic automobile or not. We will have to make a few of them and let you try them, because the customer is the boss when it comes to industry. But I think you can expect with every certainty that after we get out of the war we are going to have a lot of trouble. As a professional researcher, I will set that one up. We are going to have a lot of trouble. We have had a lot of trouble before. We always hope that we won't have trouble, and that is what gets us into a lot of peculiar situations. The fundamental thing is that we are going to have trouble. All right, you have got to do these things in spite of the resistance you are going to have. So when people start to talk about the post-war world, I think you ought to try some experiments.
A man by the name of Charlie Miller, our chief procurement man, said to me the other day in discussing this question at the lunch table, "You're a research man, and if you are going to talk about this perfectly wonderful world, you ought to start some research on it right now. You could go over to Ireland and find out why the people in the South don't get along with the people in the North. Those people should get along well because they live in the same kind of climate, eat the same kind of food and speak the same kind of language. You should work out what needs to be done to get people to work together."
I said, "I don't think you have to go as far as Ireland. We can start right in our own country—maybe Washington, where there are several differences of opinion." You know with all the different kinds of dispositions and the funny folk we all are, I think that we should recognize that we are going to remain that way, but I don't think that is going to keep us from going on.
We can't keep this old earth from turning around. Every time it turns around they count one. After 365 counts they call it a year. It is going to keep right on doing that whether you want it or not. It's going to keep on running, and neither politics nor anything else is going to stop it. Time is going ahead. People are going to be people after the war, the same as they were before. Let's put that down as something that shouldn't worry us.
Again, sometimes we get excited about what we know. I had a letter—I meant to bring it along to read to you—from a great scientific organization soliciting funds for a research project. It was perfectly all right, but in the letter there was a little folder in which they said what wonderful work had been done by science. On the margin were some little cellophane stamps covering samples of vitamins. The letter went on to say what a wonderful thing science had done in the development of vitamins.
I gave them an amount of money, but I said I was amazed at the letter they had written, because if nature had not already been smart enough to make vitamins, there would be no scientific society. We didn't make vitamins. We nearly ruined ourselves by taking them out of foods. Take the scurvy that the English had and the beri-beri they had in the Japanese Navy because they wanted to have nice polished rice instead of leaving the hulls on it. The cause of scurvy was discovered 100 years ago, but the man who discovered it didn't have a doctor's degree.
Sure, we can get better food, better medicine, better everything. Some people even say we have gone too far in our scientific development and research. Well, if we have, I can tell you what you ought to do about it. Just take any one thing you want and back up on it. Would you sooner have it as it was 10 years ago or as it is now? If you still think we have gone too far with it, there is nothing to stop you from going back. The only thing is that we will recognize how little we know, what a small part of the globe we have traveled in this development of science and understanding nature. We don't know anything about it.
We have been trying for 15 years to find out why grass is green, and the nearest answer we've got so far was from a fellow who runs a golf course out in Arizona. He said, "I don't know whether this suits you or not, but I know that what makes grass green out here is water."
This whole question of green grass is terribly important. If these plants didn't know how to catch the sunlight and preserve it for us for food and clothing and fuel, we wouldn't be here. Fifteen years isn't very long to work on such a problem.
When I started that research, I hired some very young men. I said, "I hope you'll all get married and have large families, because I think this is going to be a two or three generation job." That doesn't make any difference. It is so important that we are going to know about it.
II think we are going to have television after the war. We ad it going pretty good before the war started. I was in England on the second or third anniversary of television, and the boys were quite discouraged. You know there is a theory that short micro waves behave according to optical laws and you can't transmit any further than the antenna can see. Twenty miles from the top of the antenna is as far as you can reach. It wasn't going to be so good. You were always going to be limited to large concentrations of population and so forth.
I said, "But how do you account for the fact that this fellow in Nova Scotia can get your pictures once in a while. Certainly that is farther than the antenna can see." This Nova Scotia boy happened to be a relative of one of our dealers up there. He said, "We can receive television programs from England when conditions are very, very bad." Twenty miles when conditions are perfect—2,000 when they are bad! Now, all that means to me is that somebody is standing on his head to look at this thing. "Well," I said to the British television fellows, "I don't think you ought to worry about it. I think you are doing pretty well for three years, because I just talked to the man down here in your telephone organization the other day and I asked him how far you could telephone at the end of three years. He said they could telephone about 25 or 30 miles out of London.
I said, "Supposing somebody had got up at a meeting then and said, 'Now, gentlemen, this is perfectly marvelous. We can talk on the wires from here to London. Let's throw these wires all away. Here is a system whereby you can talk to America without any wires.' What would they have thought of that fellow? You know they would have put him in the hoose-gow. They'd have said, 'Everybody knows you can't talk without wires.' But not so long ago I remember there was a big storm up in New England. All the wires were down. A thousand messages went from Boston to New York via radio. Nobody even mentioned it.
"So how much smarter do you think you are than your predecessors were at the end of three years?" I asked the television people.
I came home and the ship reporters met me and said, "We understand you spent a day at Alexandria Palace. What do you think about television?
"I think it is coming along fine—just around the corner. It won't be long before we will be sitting over here and seeing pictures from London," I told them.
That was published in a New York newspaper, and I got two very interesting telegrams. I think both were written over the same drink. They said, in part, "You may know a lot about automobiles, but you certainly don't know anything about television. Why didn't you see someone in London that could tell you something about it? Your idea of sending pictures across the ocean is preposterous."
I wrote replies to both telegrams—"I spent the day as guest of the Chairman of the Board of the British Broadcasting Company. Whom do you suggest I ought to see?" I didn't receive a reply to that.
It was less than a year afterwards when one of the New York papers published a piece written by one of the men who had sent me one of the telegrams. The story stated that the National Broadcasting Company had picked up a 15-minute television program from London and had photographed it in New York. I simply cut the piece out and sent it to him with the question, "Whom did you see?" But, incidentally, he made the remark that such good reception was possible only when we had very, very great magnetic storms—when weather conditions were terrible.
I am just mentioning these things to show that we don't know very much about anything and we ought to come out and admit it. If we would just do that, what wonderful things might be achieved. All the things that we have now were once only ideas in people's minds. They are very intangible delicate things. This building was an idea in somebody's mind—not specific, but a general idea that you ought to have a great Music Hall here at Purdue. Then it developed a little bit. When it was first started, it could have been killed very easily. Then finally after a while, with a lot of trouble, somebody picked it out of the air for you, and a lot of hard work had to be done before you got a thing like this completed. It always takes a lot of effort to accomplish anything that is off the beaten track.
Now going back to the matter of the future, I think that first you must have faith that you can do the right kind of things—but that faith mustn't be so strong that you resent doing the cleaning-up work. Our research laboratories are nothing but a scientific janitor's outfit. We take things that have been developed and clean them up and get them so people can use them. The man that is working in the academic laboratory is interested only in the functioning of the thing, the material and energy relationship. But when you sell it across the counter, you've got economics. How much does it cost?" You have to take psychology into consideration. The thing has got to work at the place where the fellow wants to use it. He doesn't care how scientific it is. He paid so much for it and he expects it to work. That is the practical side of what research has to do.
You can set your mind to almost anything you want to do—cure of disease, or medicine. That has been done wonderfully in the last 25 or 30 years—surgery, nutrition—all the things we know so little about. The sulfa drugs, only a few years old, are revolutionizing medicine, especially for certain types of infections.
We have to set a course by which we arrive at a destination that means something. Don't start out with a trivial idea that you want to make a new Diesel engine or a new this or that, and then quit the first time you put it together and it fails. You have to have enough knowledge of what its value is that you will go through with it. Somebody has to pay an awful price in nervous effort to live through such things.
I think some of you must have heard me tell the story of Duco paint. We used to finish cars with the same kind of varnish that you put on pianos. It took 17 days for cheaper cars and 35 days for more expensive cars. I called in all the paint experts and said, "We want to shorten the time required to paint a car."
They said, "You can't do much about that."
I said, "We've got to shorten it."
They said, "We can shorten it a couple of days."
"I am not talking about that. I am talking about really reducing the time."
They said, "How long do you think it ought to take to paint a car?"
I said, "An hour. Why can't you paint a car in an hour?"
They said, "The paint won't dry."
I said, "Can't you do something to speed it up?"
"Not a thing in the world," they said.
I said, "I don't believe it." So I was always looking for paints that would dry fast. I was walking down Fifth Avenue one day and passed a jewelry store window. There were some little pin-trays in the window that had a new type of lacquer on them. I bought a 70¢ tray for $11.50.
I said, "These are finished with some new kind of lacquer. Where do you get it?" The manager didn't know, so I went to the pin-tray manufacturer. He said he had got it from a fellow over in New Jersey.
I found a little bit of a laboratory in back of a business block, and I said to the fellow that was running it, "I want to get a quart of that material."
He said, "My goodness, I never made a quart of it before. What do you want to do with it?"
"I want to finish an automobile door with it," I told him.
"You can never do it in the world," he said.
I said, "Why not?"
He said, "If you put it in one of your spray guns, it will dry before it reaches the door."
I said, "Can't you do anything to slow it down?"
"Not a thing in the world," he said.
So the thing you call Duco is simply halfway between the paint they couldn't speed up and the paint they couldn't slow down, and we have finished many automobiles in an hours time.
I am giving you these examples simply to illustrate that you have to have a reason for wanting to do them. We have become so evasive. "I don't think that will work." "I don't think I'd better try that." "It has been tried before and failed." You have heard it. There is a whole category of
development just as every industry and every community has. It didn't just happen.
You know your Chairman started this meeting off with a little poem. I think when engineers meddle with poetry, it is very dangerous. Nevertheless, a friend of mine sent me a little poem the other day. I think it was written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
"One ship drives east and another drives west
With the self-same winds that blow.
'Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
That tell them the way to go.
Like the winds of the sea are the winds of fate
As we voyage along through life.
'Tis the set of the soul
That decides its goal
And not the calm or the strife."
I think right now we have need for the greatest soul-setting endeavor on record. In other words, we have got to set our course—not a random course, not a wishful course but a course that will get us to the destination we want, whether it is a pleasant course or whether it isn't. I think with American ingenuity, with American faith and with American determination, we can take this mysterious future which isn't so very clear and from it carve out anything that human imagination can think of that is worth carving out—that is, if it is for the benefit of the human family.