Last summer at a Pan-Am soccer game in Hamilton with my grandson, in great seats given to us by an engineer friend who was unable to attend, I was enjoying life, the company, the weather, and the atmosphere. All was good.
During the second half of the game the woman next to me said, “You must be an engineer.” It was out of context and I asked how she knew. It was the ring. A conversation followed and Ada suggested that I might be interested in talking with her father, Frank, who is an engineer. I turned and looked at Ada, asking, “How old is your father?”
“Dad just turned 93.”
Of course I was interested.
The only child of British parents from Nottingham and Cornwall who moved to Canada in the early 1900’s, Frank Dixon, was born in Winnipeg on July 5, 1922. Frank’s father was in charge of fire prevention at the Winnipeg Eaton’s store that also served as a catalogue centre for the western provinces.
Frank attended the University of Manitoba, graduating in 1945 as part of an engineering class of 30, when employment was on a ‘we will let you know’ basis. Jobs were uncertain because no non-government/military contracts existed at the end of World War II. Businesses knew they would get peacetime contracts but they didn’t know what or when. He had been fortunate to find a summer position at Westinghouse in Hamilton at the end of his third year at U of M, and was offered a full-time job in the ‘apprenticeship program’ when he graduated.
By 1948 he had a few years work experience, met Doreen Marritt at the Rosedale Tennis Club, was married and settled into life in a lower duplex on Balsam Avenue South. Frank was 26 years old. In the next few years, Doreen and Frank had two children, Edward and Ada.
At that time Westinghouse had a patented transformer switch that was due to expire and needed to be cost-reduced. Frank redesigned the switch so it would be cheaper and they wouldn’t lose the business without the patent. He was young, his degree and knowledge were current, and his engineering ring was proudly on his working hand. After seventy years, Frank still wears that ring, well-worn, and now held in place with a black O-ring. We met at his retirement residence and Frank, Doreen and Ada shared some stories about his life and career.
Life included two weeks of vacation per year – usually spent family camping in Algonquin Park, with many summer weekends at Lake Simcoe.
From 1954 to 1959 Ontario changed the electrical grid from 25 Hz to 60 Hz. Westinghouse was involved in upgrading motors from 25 to 60 cycles. This required new windings and many motors were ‘embedded’ within the equipment. Frank was the designated engineer from Westinghouse. General Electric also designated an engineer, John Wood for Comstock’s major contract work that had to be done. It was a five-year project and Frank’s boss hired him right away and told him to fill in the application later. The Dixons rented a house in St. Catharines to eliminate the commute to work there.
Frank, who is ambidextrous, writing with his right hand while drafting with his left, saw that ‘computerization’ was coming and started taking night classes in Buffalo. After working all day in St. Catharines, he and two other engineers drove to Buffalo for evening computer classes, returning late at night. The course was called ‘Modern Computing Methods’. It was 1954. Frank realized that motors were “an ideal application for a computer.
When Frank returned to Westinghouse he proposed they use a computer for motor design. It was 1956. He wrote the first program to do just that. When he turned over the program, the other engineers immediately did a hand calculation to verify his ‘computer design’. The computer was spot on with their hand calculations and the engineers were eager to use the computer. A while later came ‘some fun’ as Frank calls it. The computer broke down. The engineers didn’t like having to go back to the old hand-calculations for a week or two.
The early computers had no storage so Frank used a ‘ticker tape’ to store the information he needed for input, data, calculations and output. Westinghouse liked what they saw in Frank and his computer work so they encouraged him to learn and then contribute his knowledge and skills. Three engineers shared one computer with each one having it for eight hours per day. As the computers became faster, and larger, using cards, Frank developed programs to design electric coils and windings for motors. He hurt his back lifting and carrying the stacks of computer cards.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s Frank spent many good times attending computer conferences throughout the USA. The ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) met often. The legendary Grace Hopper was frequently present at these conferences. Grace Hopper wrote the programs to calculate square roots and trig functions. He met and participated in discussions with the early computer pioneers. Frank made detailed, extensive notes of all his conversations and encounters with these computing colleagues, which he included in his reports to Westinghouse. Often there would be three sessions per day followed by impromptu, open evening discussions where the participants would ‘throw in ideas’. There were many ‘ground breaking’ moments. Frank was a part of this special world.
In 1968 he designed his family cottage on an island ‘up north’. Frank did the purchasing of materials and transported everything to the Island, five miles by boat. He designed an innovative water system with plumbing that included a composting toilet. The cottage was his second job, engineering fun! And in 1983, when Frank retired, he was still working on the cottage and had bumped his head on the boat motor. His retirement photo shows his injured forehead.
Frank carefully showed some special items from his career including his slide rule, his engineering stamp, marks from his final year at U of M, his engineering certificate, a unique engineering award and his book of engineering tables.
Frank’s advice to new engineers?
“Take opportunities when they occur.”
“Try your own thing.”
“Take the initiative.”
“Take a transfer if it is offered.”
Frank, Doreen and Ada – Thank you for sharing! It was a pleasure!
By Bob Loree, P. Eng.