My Life and Times at Friden
By Dick Ahrens
Mr. Ahrens began work for Friden in early 1963, right about the time
that Friden was working in earnest on development of its first electronic
calculator, the Friden 130.
Ahrens worked for what was Friden and became Singer, and later other companies
that evolved as the market changed, for 23 years, and has wonderful
experiences to share. Many thanks to Mr. Ahrens for spending the time
to put together this fascinating story.
In early 1963, I found myself to be out of work, so I went to the employment department at my alma mater, U. C. Berkeley, to see if I could get help from them to obtain another job. The recruiter at the university called Friden Calculators in San Leandro and got me an interview for the following Monday with the Vice President of Engineering, George Hare.
George Hare called me at home during the weekend and told me to go to the Personnel Department at Friden, entering by the Personnel Department entrance. After the Personnel Department had told me that there were no jobs available, I was to come, through the main front entrance and the lobby, up to his office. It went as he said. George asked me but two questions, first-if I have a three-inch wooden painted cube and I cut it into one-inch cubes, then how many saw cuts are required, how many cubes end up with no paint, how many have one side painted, two sides painted, three sides painted? Secondly, why do people get married?
Then George sent me to another building to be interviewed by Mr. Robert A. Ragen, the manager of electronic calculator design. Ragen asked me what a delay line is. I didn't know, and so answered. Then he asked me several questions about binary arithmetic. I couldn't answer them. He sent me back to George Hare, who surprised me when he told me that he would send me a letter telling me to start work on the next Monday morning. Start work, he said, and forget about the Personnel Department until I didn't get paid, then complain after two weeks without a paycheck. That is what I did, and the Personnel Department eventually gave me an employee number and started paying me.
My initial assignment was to help in engineering the production design of the electronic calculator then being designed in the Electronic Calculator Engineering, and then to move with the calculator to the factory Production Engineering Department when the product was released to production.
I reported in on the following Monday, with a date of hire of, I believe, January 17, 1963. I was assigned to work for Pete McKenzie, who was to lead the production layout team for the first electronic calculator, which Ragen was then still designing. Designer Larry Kramer, who was in charge of keeping the roughly 20-foot-long schematic up to date, gave us a copy of a section of the schematic that included the four bi-quinary counters. Pete McKenzie and I started by struggling to break out a piece of the schematic that could be laid out on printed circuit boards. Our main problem was that each section of the schematic had so many inputs/outputs that it would require hundreds of connectors to the rest of the machine. Bob and Pete had already determined, with input from the Service Department, that plug-in printed circuit boards were the way to go for good serviceability.
Pete and I came up with some dimensions and also with a solution to our input/output problem. We would make the printed circuit boards in pairs, connected across the top, thus grabbing a larger chunk of the schematic of the machine and therefore reducing the number of inputs and outputs from that section. I did a trial layout of the counters, we had the printed circuit board made, and the laboratory technician, Lou Santos, stuffed it and got it working.
We soon did the rest of the printed circuit boards, as fast as the circuitry on each section of the schematic was considered to be a fairly firm design. Piece by piece, part by part, we got the whole machine packaged between January and somewhere around April of 1963. I did the layout of all the eight logic boards, the power supply board, the delay line board, and the high-voltage board.
I believe that Pete McKenzie had the idea for retaining the printed circuit cards with extruded holes on the chassis front plate and chassis back plate, rather than by mounting card-slide parts. He saw that we could get that function for free in this manner. The Friden company had a real expertise in the making of all of its own mechanical parts-there were approximately five thousand parts in a typical mechanical calculator, and every one of them was made in the factory in San Leandro. Extruded holes were no problem for the Friden factory.
I enjoyed the work, and working along with the team which included electronic calculator manager Robert A. Ragen; packaging manager Pete McKenzie; logic designer Carl Herendeen; senior electronic technician Harold Wooldridge; designer Larry Kramer; designer Duane Booton; designer Floyd Nabonne; mechanical laboratory technician Ken Steward; electronic laboratory technician Lou Santos; printed circuit board layout designers Don Deiro and Don Ball; secretary Roxanne Livermore, later secretary Susan Martin, later secretary Raeia Marshall; plus some others whose names I have clean forgotten. I would work for, or with, some members of this team on and off for the next twenty-six years until I retired.
The covers design was done by Elmer Stoltz, the manager of the Industrial Design Department, with his own design team. I thought at the time that they did an excellent job. I have the first-ever picture of the EC-130 prototype. I took this with my own camera just after we-the entire group helped in the laboratory-had gotten it working properly. Right after my picture, the machine was taken off to be photographed by professionals in the Industrial Design Department.
After the machine logic design had been completed, Bob Ragen would calculate the power drain of each logic component of the machine, and not until then would he design the final power supply for the machine. Layout of the power supply printed circuit always seemed to be needed at some very last minute, while simultaneously trying to get a machine packaged or released to production.
Walter Johnson, the owner of Friden, came in for a demonstration, before the final covers design was completed, and he wanted the production calculator to look like the engineering model, the original "hump-backed turtle", the one sitting on the almost-desk-sized cabinet-full of electronics. However, we could not find a way to package it -- stuff all of those components into that shape without the cabinet -- and cooler heads eventually prevailed.
Walter Johnson still owned Friden at that time. I believe that he sold Friden to the Singer Corporation in July of 1963, shortly after the prototype EC-130 was built and made to run. Since Walter Johnson was in his nineties, there was no company policy forcing anyone else to retire at any particular age. I recall seeing ambulances coming to the factory, it seemed almost daily -- to take away production workers who had died and fallen off their stools. The change from Friden Calculators to a Singer division was transparent at our level. Singer purchased a profitable working company, and wanted it to continue to work and be profitable. Some top managers changed, but that didn't affect us a whit.
I was told that Walter Johnson saw World War I coming, knew that wood and paper products-cardboard and packing boxes-would be needed for the war effort, bought up millions of acres of timber rights in northern California for 50 cents per acre, and was a multi-millionaire war profiteer by the end of World War I. He later invested something like 25 thousand dollars into Carl Friden's new start-up company, when Carl Friden left Marchant (later Smith Corona Marchant). This share netted him 198 million dollars when he sold out to Singer. Not a bad return.
By the by, engineer Carl Friden left Marchant because he had come up with a way to save 1,000 parts, out of 6,000, in the Marchant mechanical calculator. Marchant management would have nothing to do with Friden's idea, so Carl Friden left to found his own Friden Calculators in 1934.
One way of roughly estimating costs is to divide the total cost to manufacture a machine by the number of parts in that machine to get an average installed part cost. This installed average part cost can then be used to calculate the cost of a new (functionally similar) machine. Carl Friden knew that his new machine would be 20% less expensive to build, from installed parts costs alone, and that was enough to get him financing.
Our big day came sometime in the spring of 1963. We had a prototype packaged in the prototype set of covers from Industrial Design. Bob Ragen always did the first turn-on of a new machine. Before Bob came into the laboratory, we hooked up 25 feet of plastic tubing to the machine, running over to the corner desk where Ken Steward worked. As Bob started to bring up the voltage from the Variac to which the prototype was connected, Ken lit up a cigarette and blew smoke into the tube. When the smoke came out of the new machine, Bob instantly turned off the Variac, unplugged the calculator, unplugged the Variac, unplugged the laboratory bench, and was ready to unplug the entire laboratory, coffee pot and all. It was a "gotcha" and it took a while for Bob to calm down.
The original prototype machine had a monstrous interlocked keyboard. There were mechanical bars activated by key depression that prevented other keys from being used. Friden Calculators always hired expert adding machine users to test their new products. The lady who tested the EC-130 did not think very much of it at all, for she was actually faster on a mechanical calculating machine. Then Bob Ragen changed the keyboard for her to a non-interlocked version. The tester immediately knew that we had a runaway success. Her calculating speed on our prototype was now far above any she had ever obtained before. The interlocked keyboard died then and there, but Marketing did not realize it until some weeks later.
Around the same time that the prototyped 130 was running, to prepare for the sale of Friden Electronic Calculators, management gave a contract to an outfit named, I think, PACE, to measure the company's output. A number of PACE inspectors would continually walk around the entire complex -- factory, offices, engineering, the whole canoodle -- making notes on clip-boarded papers, while looking very wise indeed. They would take notes on whether workers were at their proper work stations or "out-of-area", and what they were doing, to see whether they were really working. One day a PACE inspector arrived while Pete McKenzie was on the telephone (perhaps or perhaps not on a personal call). Pete said into the receiver, "Hold on there a few minutes, will you." He then leaned back, put his feet up on a low filing cabinet, folded his arms, and just stared at the PACE inspector. They stayed that way only for minutes, but it seemed like an hour before the PACE inspector broke first, and started to leave, amidst the quiet of an entire department that had stopped everything to watch him. At which, Pete said quite loudly into the telephone, "Well now, dear, ...." We couldn't hold it in.
Our building had three entrances, front, side, and back. Whenever someone spotted a PACE inspector coming across the street, employees would lock two of the three doors -- always different ones -- then smile broadly through the windows. There was little love lost between us and PACE people, for PACE counted us as out-of-area if we were working in the laboratory rather than loafing at our desks.
As soon as we got the first pre-production model completed, we started right over again, trying to clean up all the errors that crept into the first model. The four counters were reduced to three counters, and we got rid of some of the expensive touches that had crept in, as well as updating the circuitry.
When the calculator, now called the Model 130 Calculator, was moved to Production Engineering in the factory in late 1963, I was transferred with it. My new boss was Jim Hussey, who had long since been promoted well above his level of competence. Joe Reilly and I did the production engineering on the EC-130 and soon production started on the first one hundred pre-production machines, in the winter of 1963-1964.
During my time in Production Engineering, it early-on became obvious to me that various factory departments were not at all enthusiastic about seeing the EC-130 progress smoothly into production. There seemed to be bottlenecks everywhere, and the factory was falling further and further behind its schedule. One day early in 1964, a meeting was called by engineering management, inviting all of the major factory departments -- factory management, purchasing, production engineering, tooling, inspection, assembly -- to try to sort out what was going wrong.
This meeting was called for 1:00PM, right after lunch. I must have eaten a heavy lunch that day, for as the meeting droned on and on, with the factory departments all making excuses for not meeting their schedules, I fell into a light doze. Purchasing was making a presentation explaining how all of the parts were on order, when I heard someone say, "No!"
I awoke to find that I myself had been the one to say that word. Factory Manager Roy Renholtz and a red-haired man from Engineering who I did not know both insisted that I explain. I explained that, as far as I could tell, only about half of the purchased components were actually on order, and that a similar percentage of the factory-made parts were actually being tooled up and made in the factory. Roy Renholtz then suggested that the meeting adjourn until 9:00am the next morning, so that he could see if my claims were true.
I felt that I had done it this time -- overstepped the bounds and outstayed my welcome -- so I left, went straight to the parking lot, got in my car, and drove home. I returned the next morning at exactly 9:02am, just in time to be the last one to arrive for the meeting, having decided that I might as well face the music and get fired face-to-face.
Ray Renholtz got up and apologized to engineering management for wasting their time. He had looked into the factory situation during the rest of the previous day, and he had found that what I had said was correct. Now he said that he needed some time to instill some fear into his troops. All of his troops were there in the meeting, and they were all listening. He said that he would report back in several weeks, but that he now knew what had to be done. On the way back to the factory, as I started to head for my car again, he told me to get back to work.
At the end of my first year, Jim Hussey offered me a monthly raise from $600.00 per month to $605.00 per month. I told him, politely, that the company probably needed the five dollars per month more than I did, while I privately decided to find another job. While walking down the hall, I encountered George Hare, who asked me why I was so far down in the dumps. I told him about the raise and about my feelings of its inadequacy. He asked me to stay with the company until the end of the following week, while he sorted out some options. I so promised. Early the next week, I was invited to an interview with David Abbot, the Engineering Operations Manager. It turned out to be an interview for a job in the Operations Department. During the interview George Com-stock came in. He asked me a number of questions about many of the factory people, and I gave him my opinions. I was hired, with a promise of a raise in three months or a request to leave the company. In three months, I got the raise and a promotion, and three months later I got another raise.
This job included writing engineering procedures manuals, planning for overseas production, liaison with Underwriters' Laboratories, and whatever else George Comstock wanted. While at this job, George Comstock casually suggested that I might see about learning something about computers. This "suggestion" was really an order, so I took machine-language course at U C Berkeley, and followed that up with a course in Fortran IV, which was the latest version of Fortran at the time. I found out that I was the only person in the class with a computer available to me. We students had to write our programs, punch up our IBM cards, hand them in to the computer facility for batch-processing, and come back two days later to find out that our programs didn't work. I got permission to turn on the Friden engineering IBM 1620 at night, and got a storage disk assigned to me. I could punch the cards after work, try my programs on the IBM 1620, and keep on trying with modifications until I got it to work. Computers, at the time, were so expensive that most were kept busy 24 hours per day, so having one that wasn't busy was a rare treat. I never did anything useful on the 1620. My class project was a program to write crossword puzzles, which worked just fine, thank you.
Next, George Comstock next had me learn the IBM "MTST", a typewriter-based word processor with magnetic tape storage. This was strictly word processing. George had me doing the final, clean-up version of his Engineering Procedures Manual.
There were NO engineering changes required during pre-production and early production, because Bob Ragen always completely designed his products before he released them, so that changes weren't required. This, in my experience, is one of the great differences between Bob Ragen's designs and the designs of (almost) every other engineer with whom I worked during my career. Jim Hussey of Production Engineering, for reasons inexplicable, started to have the printed circuits boards re-engineered, but I soon got that stopped by Bob Ragen.
Bob Ragen and about four of his engineering team spent two weeks in the factory, day and night-8:00am to midnight, shepherding the 100 pre-production machines through production and helping to get them running-teaching the factory line personnel some of the skills that they were going to need.
The factory had an old Norwegian tool-maker, Rolf Magnussen, who was the only person at first who could weld the magnetostrictive ribbons onto the ends of the delay line wires. Bob had taught him how to do it; then Rolf was finally able to teach a few of the factory personnel how to do it. I believe that this was the only critical mechanical or electronic skill required by the EC-130 calculator that Friden Calculators did not already possess.
Several major production goofs did cause their problems. Something on the order of a million diodes were purchased from an unauthorized vendor and installed. They didn't work very well at all. Many sets of completed boards had every diode replaced by hand, and quite a few printed circuit boards were thrown away. The factory Purchasing Department learned in that incident, from the Factory Manager, no less, that they had to listen to engineering when vendors were specified or disallowed.
"Andy" Anderson, the first manager of the EC-130 production line, decided upon a cost reduction and purchased fifty sets of paper-based printed circuit boards, instead of the epoxy-based printed circuits Bob Ragen wanted. They didn't work, for the traces cracked almost immediately. I found out, and all fifty sets, already stuffed and soldered, were thrown into a trash barrel. Andy Anderson never forgave me for blowing the whistle on that one. A few days later he locked me out of "his" electronic calculator assembly building. It took the factory manager, Roy Renholtz, to order Anderson to apologize to me before I would enter that building, to get my job done properly. I was not about to quit, I was loaded for bear, and I was just waiting for them to fire me, but the factory manager calmed us all down.
The Marosi de-plating machine was mostly a nightmare. It just could not handle two-sided printed circuit boards with plated-through holes of the complexity of those in the EC-130. It did just fine at de-plating the open circuitry of the one-sided high-voltage diode board. One weekend, orders got scrambled and someone made about a five-hundred-year supply of those simple boards, because the workers could not get the more complex boards to run. We ended up purchasing all of our printed circuits except the high-voltage diode board.
We laugh at this level of printed circuit board complexity now-two sided, with plated-through holes, but these boards were quite advanced for 1964.
Another step forward: Ragen was in touch with United Shoe Machinery, located somewhere in New England. United Shoe Machinery appeared to be running out of business in shoe manufacturing, and they were looking for a new business. It turned out that stuffing components onto printed circuits was that business. I believe that Friden, by this time the Friden Division of the Singer Corporation, bought a number of the first component stuffing machines.
Here are a few notes about Bob Ragen. I recall him saying (it actually happened well before I was hired) that he was hired by Friden to work on one of the classified projects that Friden had gotten from some "spook" agency in the government in the late 1940s or early 1950s. He had started working, but could not yet enter the classified engineering area because he did not yet have his (Top Secret?) security clearance. Bob, working in an unclassified area, would work out a piece of logic, design it, and then someone would come by his desk, stamp some classification on his drawing, then take it away because Bob did not yet have the clearance to see it. Ah, the security mind! Today, we can see much evidence of it.
When I joined Friden, the men in his department were still talking about the coffee situation. Calculator Design Engineering was in a separate building across the street from the Friden factory with its cafeteria. Bob had a large coffee pot in his laboratory for everyone to use. A company fire inspector came by and decided that the coffee pot was unauthorized and unsafe, so he took the pot away. Bob shortly found that there was no coffee and went home. His manager asked to speak to him three days later, and was told that Bob had gone home. After a call to Bob's home, the coffee pot was replaced, with apologies, I suspect.
Bob was always a gentleman with his employees. He insisted that we do the work his way, but he also wanted the employees to be well taken care of. He would say that he was running a democracy in his department, but then would admit that he was the only enfranchised voter (hard to tell this from a benevolent dictatorship). Every three years, we all, under his urging, wrote to, or called in at, the Social Security office to get copies of our records, so that we could check for errors before it was too late to change them.
I later asked Bob Ragen why he had hired me. After all, I had not been able to answer any of his questions when he interviewed me. He laughed and said that I was the only candidate for the job who had just admitted he didn't know the answers, rather than trying to give him a load of baloney.
Bob Ragen kept high piles of paperwork in his office, and kept putting things on top. If asked, he could unerringly find-"Oh, about five inches down in this pile here"-any document. He was forever at meetings. He told me one hectic week that he had 90 hours of meetings scheduled for that week.
He never answered telephone messages, saying that callers who were really interested in reaching him would undoubtedly call again. This cavalier treatment of telephone messages was the bane of his various secretaries' lives. They would promise that he would get right back to them, and he just wouldn't; this treatment even included the president of the company. When he happened to be in, between meetings, he always simply answered, "Ragen."
One draftsman-I have forgotten now who it was-decided that he did not like the fact that Bob Ragen usually arrived for work about 10:00am, whereas he had to be at work at 8:00am. Bob Ragen told him to change his hours. Next week he could come in sometime around 10:00am every day and stay until Ragen left in the evening. By Friday afternoon the draftsman had already been at work for sixty hours that week. He asked to be relieved from Ragen's hours, and never bitched again about coming in at 8:00am.
Later, sometime after the EC-130, one mechanical engineer, Leo, complained on -- literally for years -- about the work, about the company, about the working conditions, and about his fellow employees. Bob Ragen eventually got tired of this endless series of complaints and gave him three months off, with pay, to go find another job. A much-chastened Leo returned after two months without a single job offer, went back to work, and never complained again. Bob Ragen smiled and said that he had gotten tired of listening to Leo, and the three months respite was well worth it.
Bob Ragen, Pete McKenzie and I went to a meeting of the Institute for Printed Circuits, held at HP in Palo Alto, one evening late in 1963. Pete showed them one of the prototype EC-130 boards, printed, stuffed, and wave soldered. Nobody there had ever seen such a large printed circuit board, designed from the start for automatic stuffing and soldering. Our board was a big hit.
One year, I was expecting about a five percent raise. Bob Ragen called me into his office and read me the riot act for at least fifteen minutes about loose lips, for talking to someone in the Marketing Department -- he did not want any of us ever talking to our own company's Sales or Marketing -- and after he finished, he gave me a ten percent raise! A year or so later, Bob Amster, then head of calculator marketing told Bob in my presence that I wouldn't give him -- Bob Amster -- the time of day unless I looked at his (Amster's) watch first. Bob smiled.
One of my jobs was to answer some of the incoming mail about the calculators. Oft-times, I wrote two letters -- one with a straight reply was signed by Bob and sent to the customer, and the other were for internal use only. Bob's secretary would sometimes slip the facetious replies into Bob's outgoing mail for his signature, and then we would all wait for the outraged scream from Bob's office, "You can't send this....." Worked every time.
Carl Herendeen is a genius at logic design, but he isn't a talkative man. I think I heard one complete sentence from him after working with him for six years.
Larry Kramer was the sharp-tongued designer who was the only one allowed to change the schematics of the calculators. It was Larry Kramer who pointed out Alice Trillin's Law of Compensatory Cash-Flow, from Business Week, October 16, 1978: "Money not spent on a luxury once considered even briefly is the equivalent of windfall income and should be spent accordingly."
There were those who laughed at the EC-130. It was big, and it was expensive. It used a lot of desk space, and it weighed about 45 pounds. But, for several years, production had trouble keeping up with the demand. I would bet that Friden sold somewhere around 75 million dollars worth of them. They were considered a prize item for management people who wanted to show off their latest toys. We once calculated, much later, that Friden had sold nearly two billion dollars worth of machines designed by Bob Ragen.