Saturday, February 02, 2008

Grandpa Gord's Fuel Pump

When I first started writing this blog, one of the tasks I set out for myself was to chronicle the lives of my grandparents, since I had been lucky enough to know them throughout most of my adult life. I wrote about my Grandpa Gord's early years in the Upper Peninsula here, but got diverted from continuing the story as I tried to understand the Prohibition years. I still don't understand Prohibition, or some of the influences that the prohibition years had on my family, but I ended up needing to tell Grandpa's story anyway.

What got me going was a inadvertant insult to my grandpa over at No Impact Man. The proprietor there got in a rant about changing fashions and how they drive over-consumption. That's all well and good, but the example he picked was the auto industry in the 1920's, when GM overtook Ford in sales and hired some fashion consultants from Dupont:

The newly-arrived executives at GM turned to sleek styling to make their new models of cars more desirable. Henry Ford had built his Model T market on product reliability, but the ability to last was now out. The ability of a product to make its owners look fashionable was in. GM finally beat Ford out of its market dominance.
This struck a chord with me, because I had heard this story many times, from the engineer's point of view. That engineer was my Grandpa Gord. This is how I heard it:

In the 1920's, my Grandpa Gordon Harry was a young engineer at GM, fresh out of University of Michigan. Now, Model T's may have seemed reliable in their day, but like all cars of that era, their fuel systems were gravity-fed. You couldn't run unless the fuel tank (usually mounted on top of the rear of the car) was higher than the engine. If you needed to climb a hill, the standard maneuver was to turn the car around and drive up backwards.

My grandfather was given the task of solving this problem. He had a university education, but he also had the backwoods improviser's mindset. He often told me how, when he was growing up, his family was pretty much cut off through the winter, at least as far as acquiring material goods was concerned. If something broke, they fixed it, made a new one, or did without. In his final year of high school, WW I broke out and he was rapidly promoted from the master mechanic's student helper to taking over the master' mechanic's job when his boss was called to war. I suspect that these sort of experiences blinded my grandfather to conventional ideas of what was "possible" and made him a much better inventor than he could have been had he had a more conventional upbringing.

The solution to the gravity-fed fuel system was the camshaft driven fuel pump. We used to have a replica of his first design, presented to him at his retirement party, painted red and with an ashtray mounted on top, even though he didn't smoke, because that's what they did in the 1950's. It was an elegant design, looking like a miniature of something you'd find in a mine. I'm not sure when Grandpa's fuel pump went into mass-production, but soon the camshaft driven fuel pump was in every car made, up until electric fuel pumps and fuel injection took over.

Did GM come to dominate the auto industry because of "sleek styling" and fashion? Or was it because their cars went up hills?

According to my grandparents, not many cars were being sold after the stock market crash of 1929. Grandpa, and the smart guys he worked with, were lucky because they still had jobs. Their pay was cut in half, then cut in half again, but they still had jobs. My grandparents subsisted, and fed the extended family, on their garden, their chickens, and on what game Grandpa could shoot. Sometimes Grandma Mimi told us that they lost three bank accounts and two houses during that time; sometimes it was three houses and two bank accounts. Still they were the lucky ones because Grandpa had a job.

At work, the guys were still solving problems and inventing, and fine tuning their creations. My uncle tells of the experimental cars Grandpa used to drive home. There was just a driver's seat; the rest was filled with gauges and dials measuring every aspect of the car's performance.

Grandpa kept the patent papers for his first fuel pump in a file cabinet, but he didn't talk about that stuff in his later years. The stories he did tell were about his work at the GM Proving Grounds in California, in World War II. It seems that General Patton was having trouble with his tanks in the deserts of northern Africa, because the sand, wind, and heat would clog the carburetors of his tanks. Grandpa was sent out to California to solve this problem, spending months in the desert driving the tank version of those test cars he used to drive home at night. They did solve the the desert carburetor problem, and Patton went on to victory in North Africa.

When my grandparents retired, they bought a place on Lake Leelanau and their friends, Alfred and Jackie Candelise, bought a place next door. When I was young, it never dawned on me that Alfred, with his beautiful flower gardens and old-world accent, was one of the engineers that had worked with my Grandfather at GM. By that time, guys who worked at GM were a uniform bunch, your standard clean-cut, hearty handshake types who were exceptionally good at fitting in to a rigid corporate structure. I simply could not reconcile the yesman culture of the GM I knew in the 1970's with an eccentric intelligence like Alfred's.

I remember Liz's Physics teacher, Jon Kiessel, talking about how much he had learned from the two students in his graduating class who grew up "off the grid", getting all of their power from wind and solar. In the near future we are going to have to solve some big problems and we need to be looking for inovative thinkers from all corners of our communities.

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