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Jack Smith

From a can of spray paint spring some successful maxims of ingenuity and modern engineering

April 02, 1985|JACK SMITH

Arthur E. Raymond, the aeronautical engineer who was in charge of development for that wonderful flying machine, the DC-3, has been cleaning out his files lately and come across a piece he wrote some time ago to illustrate a few maxims for the successful aeronautical engineering executive, which he was, being chief engineer at Douglas for many years.

Raymond's father was the Walter Raymond who built that great Victorian pile on Raymond Hill in Pasadena, the Raymond Hotel, and oversaw its fortunes until 1931, when the Great Depression closed off the tourist trade and the bank foreclosed on all his properties.

Arthur Raymond grew up in the Raymond, which in 1901 replaced the first version (burned down in 1895), and his father wanted him to stay in the business. But Arthur went to MIT and studied aeronautical engineering, and came home and got a job in the shop at Douglas. When Douglas asked MIT to recommend a bright engineer, they wrote back, "You've got one working in your shop."

He became vice president in charge of engineering in 1934 (the year the Raymond was torn down) and was instrumental in the design and development of many famous Douglas airplanes, including the DC-3, the C-47 and the DC-8. In his files the other day he found an undated sheaf of notes he had prepared for an introduction at a confidential meeting of two aeronautical engineers who had overseen development of the F-88 and the B-47.

Raymond noted that the two gentlemen would have had certain qualities that he attempted to illustrate with an anecdote about painting a lawn swing in his own backyard.

In the course of painting that swing, he said, he was reminded of many useful maxims for the successful engineer.

He had decided to use spray paint, at least on the spring coils. But the can was emptied before the job was hardly started, because most of the paint was wasted on the air and lit on a variety of things other than the swing springs. He got another can of spray paint and finished the springs.

Maxim 1: Avoid dissipating your efforts. Concentrate your resources on the goal you have in mind.

He decided to paint the rest of the swing with a brush, beginning with the paint he had left in the spray can.

Maxim 2: Retain an open mind . . . in the sense of avoiding fixations.

Maxim 3: Foresee grief and take steps to avoid it before it occurs.

Here, Raymond says, is where he fell down.

Since he was going to switch to a brush, he decided to remove the top of the spray paint can with a rotor can opener, in the kitchen.

"This was on a Saturday morning. My wife was defrosting the refrigerator and had everything in it spread around the kitchen. A neighbor was lying on his back under the sink, trying to locate the source of some horrible noises that had been coming from our disposal. Along with them I was possessed of a feeling of accomplishment in a bright and cheerful world.

"The instant the wheel of the can opener bit into the top of the paint can I realized that I had neglected to take all the factors into account and had neglected to foresee grief. For that can was obviously still pressurized. Strange what a fixation can do in making one overlook or forget the most obvious things.

Maxim 4: Don't lose your cool in emergencies.

"What did I do? Well, when the paint started spraying all over the room and bedlam broke loose what I should have done of course was to clap my hand over the can as tightly as I could and stay where I was. This at least would have minimized the effect of what was happening. But instead, the only thing I could think of was to get this hand grenade, this time bomb, out of the house as quickly as possible. . . ."

He didn't make it. The distance was too great, the amount of paint and the pressure in the can too much. Instead, he doused the can in a metal wastebasket and stuffed a newspaper down over it and it exhausted itself harmlessly.

But by that time the entire kitchen, including his wife and the hapless neighbor, had been sprayed.

Maxim 5: Make the best of a bad situation; accept the facts, and mop up.

That is what he did. It took three gallons of paint remover and two hours, plus several old shirts.

Maxim 6: Persevere and learn by your mistakes.

He still had one can of spray paint left.

This time he attacked the problem outdoors where he could do no harm. First, he punctured the top of the can with a nail, thinking to let the pressure out. It sizzled for a while, then stopped, and he removed the top with a can opener.

Maxim 7: Be sure of your facts and avoid being misled by appearances.

He had only imagined that the pressure was exhausted through the nail hole. Actually, it had been closed by particles of paint. When he made his bold incision with the can opener, it blew again. This time, only his person was the victim.

Maxim 8: After sustaining a defeat, sleep on it and make a fresh start in the morning.

"The next week I went down to the store, bought a can of very ordinary paint and finished the job with a brush."

And that's the kind of American know-how that won the war.

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