Memories No. 6: Do You Buy New or Used Cars?

That was the first question my new boss asked me. It was late summer of 1953 at the General Electric Jet Engine Plant in Evendale, Ohio just outside Cincinnati. I had arrived as an employee in early June 1953, hired to do controls analysis and design, the subject I had been teaching at Brooklyn Poly. So a few months after I arrived a few development groups were transferred to the new boss. He was to choose part of us to stay with him and part to form a more advanced work team. Welcome to big business – where you can count on change!

So who was this new boss who asked about used cars, and what was to be the goal of the re-organization?

The new boss was Gerhard Neumann, who later was to lead GE to become the largest jet engine manufacturer in the world. He is pictured below in the mid-nineties, not long before he died from leukemia in 1997.

Neumann had just been assigned to form and lead a new special group with the specific and important task of building and testing a new jet engine variation. A variation which about half of the jet engine world thought was the wrong direction to take. It was to be known as the axial flow jet with variable compressor blades such that it could operate over a wide range of altitudes and speeds – “pushing the envelope,” as was said. GE lead engineers, formed in two teams, one making the case for this approach and the other presenting reasons against, had studied the problem for months, had had a concentrated two week off-site meeting at French Lick Park, IN, with the result that the company decided, with the Air Force’s support, to build the first test unit of this design. Some of the senior engineers who made the case against the approach were so convinced that they were right that they left GE and joined Pratt and Whitney the other major jet engine manufacturer who had decided to put their eggs into the dual rotor approach.

Neumann had been a highly respected and fast rising engineer from the Lynn, MA jet engine plant and was chosen to head the build-and-test team. He was to have the engineers he wanted for the job. The technical challenge was great and the time allowed was short. He was interviewing those of us in the Development Department to become part of two teams, as we soon learned. The main one that he would lead was to build the engine and test it in a test cell to prove the concept was sound. The second team, mainly analysis and design, and led by a second manager, was to focus on the operation of the future engine and its necessary features and parameters to best fit the estimated requirements of planned fighters and bombers.

So I walked into the new manager’s office to be interviewed as to where I would best fit in the near term programs. I knew where I would best fit, the second group, because it was concerned with the engine as an operating system, essentially what I was hired to help design. After perfunctory introductions Neumann surprised me with the title question about used cars. I think he was not surprised with my answer that the two cars I had bought were bought new. He was interested in hardware engineers that would design/buy/install items to operate the engine in the test cell so he could develop its characteristics. He evidently expected that anyone who bought used cars was likely to work on them and thus might be more suitable for “hands on” work in a test cell.

He knew he would not need control systems engineers for this work and after a short talk about the subjects I had been teaching he said they would need me in the group working on the total systems. They were short of such experience as mine. And the interview was over. I’ve often wished I could have worked for him. He was an amazing man and it would have been a wild, exciting ride to have had him as a boss.

I did notice during the interview that his office walls were bare of pictures of planes and engines. It seemed that all managers in Evendale had fancy pictures framed and hanging. Gerry ( with a hard G, as he introduced himself and was addressed as such by most everybody) had only one frame hanging. I had heard of it before I went in and while there I confirmed it to be a large certificate stating that Gerhard Neumann was hereby made a Citizen of the USA by act of Congress. It was signed by Harry S Truman. He was rightfully proud of that certificate and I expect it occupied a prominent place in all his future offices.

The most interesting part of his life, to me, was before he joined GE in 1948. He wrote his autobiography, “Herman the German”, after he retired and in it details his earlier life. A few highlights:

            Born and educated in Germany

            Was a chief mechanic for the “Flying Tigers” in China

            Became Master Sergeant in the US Army

            Drove Jeep from Bangkok to Palistine after WWII

I highly recommend it, plus the other book he wrote: “Just Lucky I Guess” that dealt a lot with the plane crash he survived with his wife when their flight went down into a lake in Mexico. They survived and rowed to shore in a life raft.

Here are some GE highlights of his career taken from company documents:

In 1948, Neumann began a 32-year career with General Electric, where he rose to the rank of Vice President and Group Executive of the Aircraft Engine Group. Among his milestone achievements for GE was his development of the variable-compressor-stator jet engine. (This became the J-79 engine, about 17,000 built) The stator is the fixed outer part of the compressor of a jet engine, within which the rotors spin to draw in air. By building adjustable vanes onto the stator, Neumann allowed the jet to increase air pressure in its compressor, for a great improvement in power and performance. Neumann won the first of his eight patents and in time saw his design adopted universally.

Neumann’s engineering and leadership skills resulted in GE teams’ breaking several world records for flight speed and, by the 1960s, capturing the bulk of the world’s jet engine business. In the course of his career, Neumann was awarded the National Aeronautic Association’s Collier Trophy (1958) and Wright Brothers Award (1993), NASA’s Goddard Award (1970), and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Guggenheim Medal (1979); among his other honors, Neumann was made a Chevalier (Knight) of the French National Legion of Honor (1971).

Some years before his death due to leukemia, Neumann wrote his autobiography, entitled “Herman the German” (1984). There, he cited the discipline of his early training as his greatest asset. But Gerhard Neumann has also shown by his life how the spirit of adventure and the spirit of invention can combine for sensational success.

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