Process

I remained hired in the Special Devices Division of Clifton Precision from 1968 until the end of 1971. Our group designed instruments for military aircraft. I don't think I'm being too hard on myself to say that I was probably the worst mechanical designer the firm ever hired.

The Old Man, pastel on paper, 1970
During my workday,  I would sing ballads to myself by the Platters, Flamingoes and other doo wop
groups, and deluded myself into believing that I could become like the great surrealist European artists I so admired.  At lunch I would read French and Russian existential novels, truly believing I was living in a Kafka-like world where nothing ever mattered or was completed. My job was dreary, and I counted the minutes until days end, and though the people were mostly very nice, I had separated from them as being of the masses, and me being of the lost children of the artistic elite.

Every draftsman has a checker a qualified designer who looks over drawings to assure that the bill of materials is correct, the measurements are accurate, and the drawing complete in every way. Mine never were. It seemed that every time I turned a drawing in for approval, it was returned with more red marks then the previous time it was submitted.

Lady of the Evening, pastel on paper, 1970
For some reason I survived my stay, and was even given a special project. The thing I was to design was a container that would house a group of electronic devices. This container would include  a locking mechanism that would hold it in place firmly in an aircraft cockpit, and was to hold several smaller cases for electronic doodads.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for my job, this project required some creativity, and I welcomed the challenge. The only restrictions I could find were that it had to fit in a certain space exactly and securely. With only these guidelines I proceeded with the project. Remarkably, the locking mechanism was well thought out and was approved. The case was accurate to size and all seemed well until the cases that were to cover the equipment modules inside were delivered.

When designing the cases, I couldn't find any standard aluminum cans to fit, so I designed custom cans to be formed or machined from brass. As any engineer would know, brass is very strong and durable, but also heavy. And the modules required only a protective housing for the electronics inside. The four prototype containers that arrived were not only expensive to manufacture, but their weight, added to the weight of the unit itself, exceeded the weight limit for the entire job.

My boss' boss called me into his office and showed me the cans. They were beautiful!  He then quietly said, "I assume you thought you were making boxes used for training elephants?" At first I didn't get it, but when I did, I burst out laughing. Despite the cost and the time lost, everyone in the room started laughing.

I never heard any more about the project, or saw it completed. I was given another job in another department, one of many I was to have during my tenure.

Fortunately for Clifton and for me, I was laid off and got to spend a few months on unemployment. But before I was let go, I was put in the publications department where I did some photography and  technical illustrations. These included exploded views, a visual 3-D schematic illustration that demonstrates how a device is constructed from its individual components. I was good at this, and I enjoyed doing it. Instead of using a pencil, I was permitted to draft with a rapidograph pen and then erase my pencil lines beneath. I taught myself multi-point perspective, a more dramatic method of visualizing a device or component. I also enrolled in two evening art courses at Philadelphia College of Art with Clifton Precision paying the tuition.

Click to Chapter 5: Journey