Wednesday, September 22, 2004


Jack Got Murdered; Then My Project Succeeded ( ! )

Note: To see 2 reviews of a book in which I explain digital, TV, & wireless,
(and the reviewers all say it's unusually easy to read & understand ! ),
click here:
By Dan Shanefield, Retired Bell Labs Engineer and Retired Professor

(Of all the "true stories from industry" that I used to tell during my lectures at Rutgers and the CFPA, this seems to have been the students' favorite.)

The best job I ever did, on any of my projects in industry, was what I did while working on "thick films" (in the year 1968). Unfortunately, I utterly failed to accomplish the original goal, at least while I was assigned to that project.

The guy who stopped the project was a big boss named Jack M. (full name deleted, for privacy). Later, Jack was murdered(!), and the project started up again. Some people jokingly accused me of arranging Jack's death, but I didn't do it (honest!). Actually, I had already transferred to another project, and I never got much credit for my "thick film" efforts.

Jack M. was a Vice President of Bell Labs. He had been famous for making the decision to use silicon instead of the previous germanium, for transistors, which was a big improvement. Also, he was one of the inventors of the "thin film" technology that AT&T used to make telephone equipment. (That involved layers of metal that were about a 25,000th of an inch thick, on the surface of a ceramic insulator.) Because of his success, Jack had become somewhat dictatorial and overconfident.

While working at ITT for 5 years (1962 to '67), I was assigned to briefly work on "thick films" (which were about 1,000th of an inch thick), and I quickly learned about them. I then got hired by AT&T, partly because they wanted to bring the cheaper thick film capabilities into the company. But reliability was extremely important to AT&T, since they owned most of the telephones, and repairs were provided free of charge. So I had to prove that the thicker films, while cheaper, were still reliable, before we could use them all throughout the gigantic AT&T (at that time, the biggest company in the world).

We absolutely needed either thin films or thick films, for the new transistorized switching system. Telephone usage was increasing so fast, that the mechanical switches couldn't allow the growth that was being requested by the customers (for the new applications like e-mail, ATM machines, etc.). We didn't want to hold back growth, or the Govt. might split us up and offer the new equipment markets to Japanese or European companies, or to others in the US.

Working furiously (and more efficiently than I did on any other job, before or after), I made some thick film circuits, tested them extensively for a year, and sold the concept to the managers of 3 of our big factories (Hawthorne, Columbus, and Kearny). They could all see that "times were changing," and we would have to decrease our costs in the future, especially if we ever got split up and had to compete. (I also had the help of a couple of excellent, old-time engineers in the company who joined my project and helped me sell it.).

We had an important meeting, in a big auditorium at the Murray Hill labs. I convinced all 3 factory bosses to attend, offering to share the credit with them, if we could eventually save the company a huge pile of money (it actually was a very big deal!). I showed my reliabilty data, using a projector on a movie screen, and I got several widely-respected engineers to come up on the stage and testify that I was right. The audience applauded loudly.

There were lots of thin film people there, who didn't want to share any power or glory with us thick filmers. Jack M. was really one of them, since he had been an important innovator in the whole thin film field. My friends said later that I had brought heavy artillery to the meeting (the 3 plant managers), but the thin film troops brought the atomic bomb: Jack M.

We all turned to Jack, since he was the highest ranking person and would make the decision.

Jack said, rather dramatically, "Well, I have to compliment that new guy, Dave, or Don, or Dan, or whatever it is - you did a good job! For a new employee to get three plant managers to come here and try to change our whole direction, and to get all that extensive reliability data in just a year - that's quite a feat. Dave, from your standpoint, you have accomplished your part of the job.

"But from my standpoint," Jack said, "I am responsible for the reliability of the enitire nation's telephones. And I have made my decision. You can all go home - we are not going to use thick films!

"We can't depend on one engineer to solve all the future problems that will come up when millions of thick films are deployed in the system. Right now we have a whole army of people struggling with that, using thin films, and we can't spread them any thinner, to take on a whole new technology that we don't thoroughly understand. Right now, only Dave understands it, and I can't jeopardize the Bell System with only that amount of support. So you can all go home. And, once again, congratulations to Dave Sheffield, or whatever your name is, for doing a wonderful job."

That was the atom bomb. It blew us off the battlefield.

I joined the thin film troops. They desperately needed a smoother ceramic insulator ("substrate") for the delicate thin film resistors. The ceramics that were available were too rough or otherwise no good (too much sodium, etc.).

My new boss, Harold Stetson, had invented a ceramic substrate that was smooth enough, but most of the ones that came out of the furnace were cracked or warped. I solved that by optimizing the amount of binder. Then we found that there was too much sodium, so my friend Richard E. "[Dick"] Mistler solved that. Then our old Pereny furnace started having "wrecks" inside, which almost ruined the whole furnace, but my really excellent technician William G. ["Bill"] Schultz and I rebuilt it and solved that problem. We solved the serious problem of cracking (by using his "thermogravimetric analysis" data). Then we finally got hundreds of good ceramics streaming out of our continuous-conveyor furnace, just in time, and thin films quickly went into use all over the country (and eventually the world), for non-mechanical transistorized switching systems. Now these ceramics are used for all kinds of computers and TVs, etc.

Then, a year later, Jack M. got murdered(!). Miraculously, like mushrooms after the rain, thick films started coming out of the 3 Bell factories and going into our network equipment. A bunch of new engineers were assigned to support this. Having read all my detailed reports, it didn't take them long to get up to speed, with no unusual problems cropping up. More than half of the circuits in our telephones (and in the world) are now thick film.

Some jokers made up humorous stories about how I arranged Jack's murder, but nobody took it seriously. What really happened was that Jack was a heavy drinker, and he often stopped at a particular bar after work. He also was a big show-off and sometimes bought drinks for everybody present. A couple of bums (now they would be called "homeless people") saw him flash a roll of $50 bills. Jack was too drunk to drive safely, and they offered to drive him home in his own car. On the way, on a lonely road, they mugged him. He resisted, and they stabbed him and then set fire to the car. They stupidly walked toward town on that same road. Passersby saw the fire, called the cops, and the cops searched the road and caught the guys, complete with Jack's wallet and ID. They each got life imprisonment. (Nobody mentioned me at the trial!)

After this episode, I thought that maybe I should have gotten Jack's permission in advance, before I had even started the initial reliability study. Then he would have been able to claim the credit, after thick films eventually succeeded, and he would therefore have allowed the project to go ahead. In later years, I actually followed such a stategy, and it usually did work. (But not with a certain type of ultra-ego-crazy boss who couldn't share a tiny bit of credit and would never let an underling's idea get started. I did have a boss like that, once. I'll never know whether Jack was that extreme or not. Of course, he might have been one, in which case I actually did the right thing, by at least getting the thick film seeds planted at the three factories, with or without credit for me.)

I had been with thin films, not thick films, for more than a year, so the new thick film troops took most of the credit for its eventual success. Actually, plenty of other people did know about my role (and later I published some things about thick films --- see NOTE below), so I did become a little bit famous for my thick film work, but not as much as I deserved to be. However, it was all OK, because I became very famous in the ceramics field for my thin film substrate work, partly because I published a lot about it (including a whole book), and I gave lots of talks. (Actually, I got more credit than I deserved! Plenty of other people had helped, but they didn't publish much, so they were not noticed, even though I often mentioned them.) Anyhow, all of this (thin plus thick) got me a job as a tenured prof at Rutgers, just before a wave of layoffs hit the industry, so I can't complain.
NOTE: In a book edited by J. Wachtman and R. Haber, you can see the chapter I wrote about thick films, if you search for the four-word string
"ceramic coatings electronic thick" with the spaces but no quotes, and then click on the top item.

For the next "war story" in this series, click on:
" I Had To Steal The $30,000 Tool ! "


For Dan's resume ("CV"), click on:
" Dan's CV "
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