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James C. Hobbs’s Interview – Part 1

Manhattan Project Locations:

J.C. Hobbs was an American inventor and engineer who created a key part of the valves used in the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He was a prominent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and was vice-president of the Diamond Alkali Company. Hobbs was brought on to the Manhattan Project by the head of the Kellex Corporation, Percival Keith, to improve the piping system in the K-25 plant. In Part 1 of his interview, Hobbs discuss his early career in industrial engineering and his role at Diamond Alkali, where he helped design innovative steam boilers for power plants across the country.

Date of Interview:
January 19, 1965
Location of the Interview:


Stephane Groueff: Hello, recording January 19, 1965, Florida, Coral Gables. Mr. Hobbs, H-O-B-B-S.

J.C. Hobbs: I was born in West Virginia, just west of Pittsburgh up in the panhandle. My father and mother were both educators and in 1893 I was five years old, we came to Florida. He was an educator and also an Evangelist. We stopped in Northern Florida around Umatilla and Mt. Dora and Orlando, that area, for three years and then in ’96 we came into Miami.

Groueff: He was a school teacher?

Hobbs: He was an intendant for schools in the north. He had five certificates.

Groueff: And evangelist?

Hobbs: And evangelist and of course in those days they’re mostly Indians down here and you had to do something for a living. He was also a very good construction man and later he was superintendent of the first of the big estates down here, the Mathewson Estate.

I worked out of the University of Florida in 1904 and 1905 and then I worked two years in the wintertime. I was yacht captain—I was only 17 but I was large for my age and experienced—for William Deering the founder of the William Deering Harvester Company and it was James Deering and Charles Deering who built those two places. Now the Mathewson family still have descendants in the area and they’re quite prominent. I worked summer times, construction work, building a dredge, operating and helping to build the first of the big estates.

Groueff: As a young man?

Hobbs: Yeah that’s right, back in that was 1905, 1906 and 1907. I went to Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and finished my engineering training. I’d been mechanical at the University of Florida before it was even in Gainesville; it was up in Lake City. So I graduated in 1910 in mechanical engineering and I was teaching then at Carnegie and taking post-grad work from then on until 1916.

My teaching after 1911 was confined then to the night classes which I liked much better than the day because they were older, more mature, experienced men and it doesn’t take as much teaching when you teach a fellow that already knows a lot of fundamentals.

Groueff: What were you teaching?

Hobbs: Mechanical engineering. In the early days Carnegie was particularly fortunate in having practical men of industry to head each department. Each of our men were big consultants in the various industries right in Pittsburgh, which was an engineering center. So we felt particularly fortunate.

And then in post-graduate work, I got into commercial engineering. We had men like the sales manager at H.J. Heinz to teach us salesmanship. We had bankers and we had advertising men and we had all kinds of businessmen, which they brought in. Andrew Carnegie of course was the founder and the first president was a very practical, go-getter; if he didn’t get what he wanted from the Board of Trustees, he got on a train, went down to New York, and came back with the money from Carnegie. So he filled up a big institution with the best equipment pretty quickly.

Groueff: In Pittsburgh.

Hobbs: That’s where, yes, [at the] Carnegie Institute of Technology. And so it was 1916 that connection or training terminated because I got married. Right after that, I guess it was 1924, I was put on the executive committee of the Board of Trustees. I was the youngest one on, and associated mostly with Princeton and Yale people but I was really the engineer on the board because the rest of the people had had other types of training.

I was on the executive committee for thirty-four years and so I had a chance to go through the educational field from the other side. I taught, and of course, I never even went to high school. My mother and father were down here, we had no high school in those days in the United States but I got a scholarship for one of the Florida universities by just taking an examination, I didn’t use it. I later went to the University of Florida.

Groueff: But your father and mother prepared you for high school?

Hobbs: Yes I got it automatically, so to speak. The year after I graduated, I began the day teaching and I went to work for the Alleghany County Light Company, which was the original company, the electric, company in Pittsburgh.

Groueff: So you lived in Pittsburgh all these years?

Hobbs: I Lived in Pittsburgh from 1907 on. When I went there I was determined to get back to Florida as quickly as I could but the secretary of the school and the official at the light company teamed up on me and I had to go down for an interview and I got rather impatient and I told them after about ten minutes, I said, “If you have cold feet and want to see what I can do, why give me a job, pay me anything you want to and after a month you can determine whether you want me or not.”

So that was the only financial dealings I ever made with the light company in eighteen years. But I went on as an assistant to superintendent for power stations. That was the technical end of the generating and my job was the legwork. We at one time had fourteen power stations in that area and we consolidate that. In fact, I was in on the original Duquesne light investigation and tests and take over for that plant for the company. We changed over to that charter because it was a much better charter.

Throughout the years it was my job to design, construct, operate, and make darn sure it made money. The power plants, the actual sales of electricity, when it came to very large customers, I was in on that too because I would make the tests of the customers’ properties and determine whether or not it was advantageous to everybody to make a deal. If it was, well then we took over the operations.

It got to the point where I was choosing the employees of the customers. In other words, the chief engineer of the William Penn Hotel—you’ve been to William Penn in Pittsburgh? Anyway, when that was built they hired their own. A few years afterwards they got into trouble and they called me and wanted me to come over and help them out. They asked me to pick a man and I picked that man and I picked too good a man because after the three years he went back to Westinghouse on a big job and I had to pick another one. But that was the type of customer relationship.

Groueff:  Always with the same company you were?

Hobbs:  Always with the same company, except in the mean time when we organized another company—the Alleghany County Steam Heating Company—and it fell to my lot to not only design a city-wide heating system, pipe lines, and streets, and tunnels, and all of that but to handle all the big costumers. That’s just a sideline.

In the Duquesne light operations, in the heating company itself, I took a losing business nationally and made enough profit and had enough happy customers. We built the largest boiler in the world at that time.

Groueff: The largest what?

Hobbs: The largest boiler. We had a new plant with the largest boiler and I arranged so that we had room for three more of the same kind. They had some consultants come in and I didn’t agree with them as usual, so we arranged and we got more power and of course less money and so on. In other words, the dollar end of it was always important. But down here [Florida], I started to work at 88 cents a day and ten hour days when I was a kid. And I still think that the dollar should be worth two.

But finishing with Duquesne Light, I continued on and we had the largest turbine in the world at that time too but the government took it away from us during World War I. That was a very trying time for me because I was responsible for running these plants that kept ammunitions factories in Pittsburgh, which was the real munition center in World War I. That was the basis of that. So that meant twenty-four hour service and during that period, toward the end, I got this flu that had killed so many in the World War. But I didn’t even go to bed because I was too busy. Afterwards I had to lay off for a little while.

And then it got to the point where our company thought we’ve got to have outside consultants; we were so big that we ought to do it. I’d already built this largest boiler in the world and of an advanced type using water-cooled tubes or pipes for walls instead of brick. The consultants they brought in had an interest in combustion engineering, which was an air-cooled refractory job, which I knew was no good because I’d been checking.

One thing about the utility business: it is a national asset of the greatest value because they are non-competitive in the sense that they cooperate with each other from coast to coast. And we had committees, many of them met every month. I was on some of the national committees and we would trade ideas and help each other solve problems and that way I became acquainted with companies. And one of the company’s was the Chicago Commonwealth Edison Company.

Groueff: Which one?

Hobbs: The Commonwealth Edison Company in Chicago that’s one of the [Samuel] Insull properties and that was the group that Sargent & Lundy serviced. I never met [Ludwig] Skog until about 1940, and when I invited the Vice President of Commonwealth Edison to come over to see my new plant at the chemical company—which I built in ’37, which was an outstanding plant, far ahead of the utilities—why brought Skog along. Skog was very quiet, didn’t talk very much but he remembered me. Later he was a consultant for another group.

Perhaps I better pick up the Diamond Alkali Company. In ’24 when this consultant group came in, they wanted to change my power plant designs. See I was responsible for operation and I wouldn’t go along with that; they wanted to go back to refractory walls, which was a maintenance job and when we built the power station we wanted that plant to run. I never liked to even shut a turbine down for a year at least. It started up and have everything so that it would run. That, incidentally, was one of the characteristics that we had to meet in Oak Ridge later.

As soon they got to the president—of course the president just hired this outfit and when they come in and recommend something and he says, “no,” well that kind of puts him on the spot. So what did he do? He reversed me. Not for long though. Within a week I had resigned, didn’t even say goodbye to him and had accepted a job for this chemical—head of a large part of the operation—a chemical company because they needed me.

I had never heard of the company before, but I will not work with anybody who will not cooperate on progress. If they don’t like what I do, why they’re perfectly free [to get rid of me], but not too long after they tried to get me to come back but I’d already made my plans. It was a good thing because the other company was going to pay me a lot more than I’d been getting, although the light company had been very generous; I don’t know how many raises they gave me, but over and over and over again. But I was happy and utility people are dedicated and they like to feel they’re part of a community, at least our Pittsburgh group did.

Groueff: You liked that?

Hobbs: I liked utility work and I liked the fellowship of utility people all over the country, for instance Skog or the people from San Francisco and one of the New York chief mechanical engineers there was a very good friend of mine which I cooperated with from 1911 on. I think he’s retired now. But when you can walk into offices and sit down and talk—[I did] Navy work later, I wanted some testing done on high pressure I was in New York my office was there, all I did was call him up and took this equipment over and the top brass of the Navy and others went over and so on.

So that was the reason I left. All my friends said I made a great mistake by leaving but in the meantime I was quite active, and on the heating end of it I became national officer and president in 1919.

Groueff: President of what?

Hobbs: The National District Heating Association. That’s a thing that covers the whole country and then I was later in the prime movers committee—that’s the generating division of the National [inaudible] Association and all kinds of work of that kind.

Groueff: Were you mostly on the inventive side or the administrative side?

Hobbs: Primarily, my job was to produce at the lowest possible cost and whenever I found that a manufacturer could not produce the thing which I knew—I had the experience, I built plants even when I was a kid down here, sawmills, ships, boats and so on—but when I knew fundamentally by my theory and practice that there was a better way to do it and they wouldn’t do it, then I would go ahead and built it myself.

We had big shops in the light company and I had very large shops in the chemical operation so all I had to do was make a sketch and send it out.

Groueff: And you personally you can build with your hands when you were a young man or even later? You are one of those people—

Hobbs: My hands are always tough because I get my information through my fingers and my eyes and ears and senses to back up what the actual thing is in comparison to the theoretical. I think I have the broadest patent in the world in connection with combustion. It covers all the rockets and covers other things; it covers the basic theoretical thing—that was back in 1914 I think.

Groueff: You have a patent?

Hobbs: Yes. I invented theoretical combustion. People up until that time thought that coal was the only thing that burned, or gas was the only thing that burned, or oil. I said, “No, oxygen in the air is just as important as the carbon in the fuel and oxygen is just as much fuel as the carbon is.”

So when the William Penn Hotel was built, see our company there had a lot of gas vendors. We owned the gas company, the Philadelphia Company, and I was associated with this group. We had about 300 corporations in that one group and here I was sitting on the staff all through those years and getting ideas and not only that but cooperating.

The gas company wanted me to use gas in the William Penn hotel. I designed and built the plant right under the hotel because we didn’t have lines in the streets then. We put a sub station in down there, put in four boilers down there. I redesigned the boilers and when it comes to fuel I could get coal down half the time or I could get gas at 14 cents!

Well if I used the ordinary gas burner, the best commercial burner available, I couldn’t afford to use gas. But when I made the theoretical calculation if I use perfect combustion, I could justify gas. There was no reason why I should prove myself with the company by putting in gas if I couldn’t make the cost right because I had to keep my total cost way down in order to make the customer relations. So I designed—and I’ll show you those patents later—I designed a gas burner that was a gas meter on an air meter and a burner all in a simple device that would give perfect combustion. We would set it once for life and so that was that.

Groueff: You invented that?

Hobbs: Yeah and I had a friend in the engineering society, Western Pennsylvania there, that was a neighbor also. At that time I was living in a fraternity house and I stayed there and continued after I graduated because I was tired even with the schools and made it very handy to be in the office and stop in for dinner there and go right to school [00:21:00] teach and then come back and go to school classes.

So this patent that covers the combination idea of metering, knowing what you’re doing that’s the main thing. If you know what you’re doing and you’ve got a good chance to succeed. And that caught the attention—I suppose I just talked with my neighbor and he suggested that I write a paper on it. And he was a director of the Western Pennsylvania Engineering Society so I wrote a paper and that attracted attention. I had quite an audience for that and later ones because the subjects that I worked with were always a little critical.

But shortly after that a German from Pittsburgh his name was Shusner [PH], I forget his first name, but anyway he was the chief engineer of the Philadelphia company, who theoretically you might say was also a chief engineer of the Duquesne Light Company but actually had nothing to do with it. The plants that they had designed were railway plants—the street railway system was part of our system also. And in 1912, the board of directors of the Philadelphia Company turned all the railway plants over to the light company and that meant that we had to go out—and they were larger plants than the light company plants—but it was my job to consolidate all those into an economical operation.

And this Ulinhot [PH], the chief engineer of the Philly company, sent his boy Daly [PH] up to my office to get some blue prints of this burner. Then he and this fella Husner [PH] out in the German Club cooked up a company and they started out. Husner sold—he claimed a million horsepower—and he never asked any permission. Our own chief engineer didn’t say what he was going to do with it. But when I heard about it I went to my friend and I says, “These things happen,” and he said, “Well I’ll take a look at my patent attorney and we’ll put an application in.”

Of course patents are slow, it takes about four or five years to get anything through and in the meantime the war had come on and Husner was locked up in Atlanta and the creditors kind of took over and even after I got the patent I had to fight them. But those same burners that we were putting in the William Penn hotel were used throughout the period and later. When we got to the point where gas was so scarce, the gas fields had run out and we had to save the gas for our own domestic purposes. Then they insisted upon coal so when I took those burners out, they went down to Monroe, Louisiana and ran an operation of the city plant down there. In the meantime it was just lots of them and there was different companies started up over the country using pretty much the basic idea. A rocket, in order to be successful has got to have metered operation, see? Any combustion, your automobile—you get too much fuel and not enough air, you get smoke. If you don’t get enough, you get lots of things.

Groueff: So that was your invention.

Hobbs: The invention is to measure the two things and put them together so as to get whatever mixture you want.

Groueff: The most, the optimum.

Hobbs: Yeah, the optimum measure. It’s usually just a slight—because it costs a little less to have excess air, but a lot of excess air costs you a lot of money because you’re heating a lot of air and it’s going up the stack hot and taking it down but that’s the patent end of it.

Then when I left I went into this chemical plant and the chemical industry as a whole at that time in ’24, I didn’t like. My utility friends, I had made a big mistake, I had a great future in the utility company, although the utility employees don’t turn over very often. We had wonderful personnel. I was, although unofficial, I was president of the employees’ organization back in 1915 and we organized educational classes and home building groups and did everything to help their own people.

We had the biggest employee functions once a month, mostly educational. So big that they were the largest functions in Pittsburgh and we made an effort to take care of them [the employees], not just Christmas parties, and it was a happy big family, see? So there was no chance for union to get a hold in there. After I left, the union got into one plant for a while but I think the [inaudible] groups killed them out because they could see that what they did was sound.

In the chemical operation we were mostly at [Diamond] Alkali. We took salt and coal and water and we turned out some 150 different products, limestone. We had big operations and this company had been formed to get away from the Sauvey domination in the glass industry.

The Macbeth-Evans Glass Company were buying soot ash from Sauvey and they thought they were being held up so they organized a new company and they got a man from Columbia Chemical, Barberton. They didn’t go after him; they had another man in mind but this man found out about and he sold himself and then he gathered up a lot of blue prints and went over and build a plant in Painesville, Ohio, right on the lake. We had a salt bed underneath us there 200 feet thick, 2,000 feet down so we got salt straight down, we got our water from Lake Erie, we got our stone from our quarry up in Michigan and our coal from our mine in West Virginia and those things all came together.

And there again, I believed in education. The vice president that I went to work under was not a chemical, not a mechanical, he had none of the basic things required for that industry but he was a graduate of Columbia in Civil [engineering]. But he was a shrewd fella so he made many millions by working that way.

Within a week after I got in there, I found the mess because of lack of knowledge. One department wouldn’t be allowed to talk to another department, and he had fake instruments in there, so if another company had spies—I understood that was common knowledge—they would get the wrong information. You know, stuff like that.

In the utility field, I insisted that everybody be educated; so everybody knew what they were doing and also we told the public so they knew what we were at. When I got into this and I found them acting like ostriches and the costs were high, of course a relatively small plant compared to the utility and coal consumption, they were only using about 1,500 tons a day of coal, that’s a lot of money, a lot of coal. And 1,000 of that was going into the steam operations to make electric power.

Well, I knew a little about electric power, but this vice president within a week turned on me. I found him in the chief engineer’s office one day out in the plant and I came in and his face got red. His name was Windecker [PH]. Well anyway, for thirteen years I operated under that: when I wanted to do something, he didn’t want to do it. The president, though, in the Pittsburgh office, which was the headquarters at that time, knew that somebody was on the job within a month because I started cutting costs immediately.

So it showed up on the books and also they put me on two payrolls then; they left me on the original payroll and then they put another payroll out of Pittsburgh, but this other fellow didn’t know about it. And so for thirteen years I kept on cutting costs. I built a cement plant within two or three months after I went in. I had never bought a cement plant before. We had the chemical count available easily and mostly big chemical operations are mechanical, materials handling, fluid handling, corrosion, pumps, all of which I had in the other [job]. In the chemical, when we got into magnesium chloride and those things, I would take it on myself.

We built the most efficient and lowest cost plant in the United States during the war and we paid for it ourselves, all except the final electrolytic costs—that is where you change the chloride into magnesium. But all the rest of it, the magnesium fluoride, which Dow [Chemical Company] had pretty much had a corner on in Clinton, Michigan and also Freeport, Texas.

We got our magnesium from limestone, which was found just west of Cleveland. We brought it in there in carloads and we set aside one of our big mine hills which was sixty-five feet high and about seventeen feet in diameter and big high one and we charged a couple hundred tons a day minus the one. And coke, which we made in our own Coke plant and then they had their own benzol and other byproducts.

Groueff: What was the name of the company?

Hobbs: Diamond Alkali, we covered cement and all these other operations. And of course after a certain length of time, the other vice president went out and I went in. In ’32 I had shut down this big boiler room, 800 feet long, a thousand tons of coal a day were going into that inefficient thing and I was turning out two or three times the Alkali at the Edison plant and other things and we only used 300 tons of coal a day. So the things we waste in this country is the nation’s loss and you have to know a lot of different things. I usually look at the waste end of the company.

When I visit a plant I want to see a scrap pile first. See what troubles they’ve had, if everything is okay, all right. But scrap and that type of thing indicates wrong design usually or wrong operation. The information that I will get will be a lot more reliable because I had technical men working under me and complete records of every failure of any kind, showing what happened, the injuries, if any, property damage if any, but the main thing is what’s being done to prevent a repetition. We never want to have that thing happen again.

And that policy made the big companies like General Electric particularly, and Westinghouse on their turbines and all, it made some of the ones that weren’t so open minded—General Electric, they were the darndest people—to get to change from their old Bible which had been written years before and which was mostly wrong because the top men then were no longer the designers, they were administrators.

And of course in order to be an administrator—the young people, they usually went along with them. But I would come in and any time I’d buy a new machine or when you buy a machine, if I had no experience with that particular type, I would have to take the recommendations largely except if I found features in that machine which had not proven right, even if it was my plant or any of these plants around the country that I was acquainted with because I’d visit them and we’d talk.

So being a Westinghouse plant maybe the design was something that I had cooked up for another machine and they would say, “Well we don’t know how to do that, but if you will design it, but we’ll build it.”

[It was] the same way with General Electric. I made them rebuild the turbines every time I bought them. I would say rebuild them before I’d accept them even; they’d be ready to ship and I wouldn’t accept them because I knew that certain fundamentals in there had caused trouble either in my plant or another plant and what’s the use of buying trouble. I wasn’t interested spending my weekends or any other ends to repair something which could be avoided.

Groueff: It’s very useful.

Hobbs: Why they wanted me? Way back in the early days I went to this chemical plant—they had 150 pounds of steam that was their standard pretty much for chemical operations, 150 to 200. The utilities, even in Pittsburgh, they’d only gone to 175. There was one or two plants at 400 pounds—American Gas and Electric out in Ohio—it was kind of an experimental plant which had 400.

Well the first job I put in the chemical plant, who the utilities feel should be a costumer of theirs, which actually they shouldn’t be in my book because they can make power cheaper than the utilities can, very much cheaper. When I went in there my first boiler that I put in, I put in one boiler and shut down a whole thirty-six boilers of 150 pounds because I worked out different arrangements for having heat.

Groueff: You did the job of thirty-six boilers by one?

Hobbs: No thirty-two in one.

Groueff:  So you replaced them by one boiler?

Hobbs: One boiler. One of the first things I did when I went up there and I looked at these other boilers—they were shutting those down every week to take slag off the tubes. So I designed a new arrangement of tubes, but the Vice President wouldn’t let me put in. He went to Europe and I put them in because I got the president to tell me to go ahead. The boiler company didn’t want to appear too friendly because the other fella was the one doing the buying. But when he went to Europe I made the changes and the boiler room foreman there—of course he gotten his job from the other fella and he says “No good” and so on and so on.

The changes I made opened up the passes and allowed the heat to be absorbed by the boiler instead of getting the walls hot and melting them down and making the slag so fluid and plaster shooting all over within a week. So when I got through why we can put them on and keep them on but they were still small boilers. And I had just two or three months, you couldn’t even buy boiler and have it delivered.

They were getting ready for the cement plant, they wanted 5,000 kilowatt down there early in the following year. I went there in September and so I took a couple of these boilers and put them together and added some more tubes and made them about four or five times as big and put in a super heater and then bought one turbine from GE, which was an awful thing. We had to change everything except the main plate and couple castings before we got through. And I rebuilt part of it myself. I could do something quicker than I could take the time—

Groueff: You definitely have some talent for inventing.

Hobbs: It’s just getting an answer, a practical answer for the problems that you know exist. If you have the eyes for scientific training, and the background, mathematics and that type of thing—

Groueff: So you know how to build the stuff?

Hobbs: Yeah, if you see me around the plant or any place else, you just often see me with a piece of equipment or I’ve gone down to the big chemical equipment while it’s operating in order to find out just what’s going on. If you know what’s going on you can do something, if you don’t, you rely on the fellas at the front desk and take some report that a kid made and some impressions you got in school where the fella hadn’t had any practical experience ever—you don’t get anywhere.

If I might digress just a minute the great waste of time and money at Cape Canaveral is due entirely to the back of the thing that you’re emphasizing. You see all these Ph.D.’s and all that are coming in again.

I went up to 700 pounds and instead of 350-degree temperature in the steam I used 700-degree temperature in the steam. If you start high enough up, the boiler and steam unit is no different than a waterfall. If you have to operate on a little bit of a head it takes a lot of pounds of water to do something. If you go on up high enough then the free fall, properly utilized, will give you a lot more.

When I went in the utility business in Pittsburgh we were using five pounds of coal per kilowatt-hour, and that was a good figure. The last plant I designed, in fact I made a lot of power at the Diamond Alkali Company, with less than a half a pound of coal. If we hadn’t in this United States gone out and built up our public utilities so that we were down to about a pound and a half or two pounds when the war came along, we would have been in real trouble. [Inaudible] would have had the country by the neck. It got to the point where we’re using a lot more gas and oil. The mines don’t have too much business and why should we waste our nation’s resources and spend all our money hauling coal?

Groueff: Just because of bad design?

Hobbs: Just bad design. So you blame engineers for most things but on the other hand they’ve done a whole lot of work, and our country is prospering largely because it’s recognized. We go way back to the Constitution and they provide for a patent system in order to give an incentive to inventors. Good inventions don’t come from great big research organizations where they spend millions and millions. The number of patents we’re turning out today—and I’ll newspaper clipping, if you’d like to see it—is very small to the amount of money they’re spending today. And the ones that are good are pretty much the result of a combined effort rather than an effort in this direction or an effort in that direction or an effort in some other direction.

I went to a meeting with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and I work with the University of Miami fellas and talk with them about different things and I was asking them about this matter of—in fact I overheard one talking to somebody else—about these doctorate degrees and what the thesis meant and who judged the thesis. A lot of these fellas, because of a wrong incentive that is keyed directly to having a degree or a doctorate.

As I told General Groves, I wasn’t a doctorate but I’ve had more college training than the doctors had. But I didn’t go off on a tangent and work on some thing that might never have any practical value. Carnegie was set up as a school of applied science, rather than theoretical but of course like a lot of others they like to turn out a lot of doctorates because the president thinks it makes him bigger than he is.

We’re getting a new president pretty soon now and the biggest trouble in the colleges today is this communist attitude. Fortunately Carnegie never had but one communist in it and he wasn’t teaching, he was in research. And I really stayed on thirty-four years largely to keep a line on the communists. And anyway the thing is that this new fella is coming from MIT and I was checking up on him the other night, also because the head of the mechanical engineering department down here is a good friend of his. [00:45:00] I have no voice in the trustees anymore but I still have an interest.

These other men were actually giving up hope of changing the curriculums in the engineering schools back to a more applied type, practical type, useful type and forgetting about some of this doctorate stuff which gets the recipient an extra $50 or $100 a month maybe, when he gets out [of school] maybe less than that.

But anyway if he stays in school and is a bookworm or particularly those with a photographic memory they get ahead.

I’ll jump over now to what [Al] Baker said to me when he had the first interview. See I hadn’t been cleared for that; I’d been cleared for a lot of other things. He said, “We’ve got all the professors and long hairs around here that we can use. What we need is somebody that knows how to build plants and make them work.” That was his actual expression.

Groueff: He was the one who contacted you first?

Hobbs: No, my contact came through Skog and it so happened that Skog had come over this one time. Here I designed the plant, and it wasn’t 700 then. I went from 700 and two or three years later I built another unit because we’d expanded our operations and we put in a chlorine department, which takes a lot of electric power. So I had to build something that would compete with waterpower at Niagara Falls. Which I did, and I put in an 800-degree, and then I started work on a 2500 pound plant at 1,000 degrees.

It was red-hot steam and I talked with my friends who were the top people in the country. Babcock and Wilcox is a boiler company that is the largest in this country and they’re associated in England as the largest combined. They are much larger than any two or three companies [combined]. But it so happened that [David S.] Jacobus, a former president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers was chief engineer of Babcock & Wilcox. He was the one that hesitated to get too close to me on this original bent tube business because he was afraid that maybe the company would turn and go combustion engineering or something like that.

But, finally, it went long and then later a guy by the name of Bailey, E.G. Bailey who fathered the Bailey Meter Company, came up to Boston. When Babcock & Wilcox wanted Bailey to head up one of their divisions, why they [inaudible] in combination with General Electric—who had a meter company—and Babcock & Wilcox bought out Bailey and he became the ranking engineer of the Babcock & Wilcox Company.

Well I went to Bailey and I explained a lot of things that I had discovered way back when I was going to school but I hadn’t followed them through about the qualities of steam. It doesn’t take that much coal to make a pound of steam at 2,500 as it does at 400, you’d be surprised by that. I was getting a lot for next to nothing.

Groueff: Yeah.

Hobbs: And I had my curves and all, and when I was in school I was worried a little bit, because they had already determined some of these physical characteristics of steam. The curve showed that at 600, which is as far as they’ve gone then, the curve had started to drop a little bit on the amount of fuel it took to make a pound. I wondered if a farmer had opened a door and taken a little heat away, if the thing would have exploded, that might have been a problem, but it doesn’t happen, it can’t happen.

So I went to Bailey, and something had happened. He had a very severe illness in Cincinnati about a month before, and he’d been sent to the hospital in New York and was expected to die. I happened to be in New York. After he came out of the hospital, he was down at the Engineers’ Club and I wanted to just drop by and see him. I hadn’t talked to him about this other thing yet, and he says “Come on down, we’ll have dinner together.”

Well he didn’t let me get away from there until one o’clock in the morning. I had these curves and it turned out that B.W. [Babcock & Wilcox] set up this special engineering department to design this new boiler. The man they put in charge of it didn’t like the way I was headed because he was used to the old thing. I was there at a conference and explaining and this poor guy goes out to the washroom. I was in the cubicle at this point and his assistant came in and they’re conversation went something like this. “Well it looks like we’ll have to give him what he wants because he’s going to get it anyway.”

I didn’t make myself known, but coming back from lunch that day, walking with Bailey, I said, “This afternoon, I’m going to give your engineering group a lecture.” Then I toured the store. He was sitting there waiting, and they got to the point where they would drag it and were just giving in, and I said, “Listen I made a contract with you for this boiler for about half a million dollars or so and you have agreed to make it perform at a certain way. I’m here to help you make it perform that way. But the responsibility is yours!”

Afterwards, every one of them told me that they thought I was shooting at them, but as soon as I left and went to training back in Ohio, Bailey told my story and everybody sat back and laughed. That fella became a good friend, but we started in and after I bought the boiler as I’d done before. That was the kind of company that didn’t do like a plumber does. If you have any changes they charge you extra. I made changes, simplified it and also made it larger and I think I was getting a $40,000-$50,000 credit. When we worked together I knew what would happen; so that is the type of things.

Groueff: That was in what year, more or less?

Hobbs: That was in 1937.

Groueff: ’37.

Hobbs: ’36 was the design year; ’37 we went into operations and it’s been operating ever since. And I hadn’t gotten the pressure a little bit because standard thicknesses of tubes permitted only 2,400 instead of 2,500 in a boiler, so we dropped back.

This other chief engineer, Dr. Jacobus, and I came into agreement on another thing, which is contrary to everybody else. And that was that the boiler tubes were too thick and they were actually tearing themselves to pieces because of differences in expansion between the hot side and the cold-water side. When we opened up these things and find that these things would be cracked without any pressure that had any justification. It had to be something different than pressure. When I analyzed that, I found the temperature difference was the thing that was causing it.

I would say that today not more than two or three or maybe five out of every 100 engineers recognize that condition. I had seen it and I have been called in by oil companies where they use tubes for cracking petroleum and go to high temperatures and have the most expensive alloy and what they thought was the best construction, but the whole trouble was the stuff was too thick. And it only lasts a short time and they’d crack; they’d start from the inside and alligator right out and crack. Expansion and contraction is the most powerful force we have in the world and you must not try to oppose it; in metals you got to go with it and design for it. Those are some of the things that I took with me into the Manhattan Project.

Getting back to how I got in, the Navy during the war wanted to pack up their stuff and Skog was on an advisory capacity for Navy people and he and General Electric and Gibbs and Cox and somebody else recommended that they get me into the picture.

Groueff: What company were you at, at that time?

Hobbs: I was still down at Alkali. They were headquartered in Pittsburgh but operations up on the lake but we had projects scattered around the country.

Groueff: And where did you live?

Hobbs: Painesville, Ohio; just thirty miles east of Cleveland.

Groueff: With your family?

Hobbs: Yeah, that’s right. My boys—let’s see before the war, two of them were married, one of them was, I think at that time he was a Purdue engineer and he was either with US Steel Corporation or with another outfit doing construction.

Groueff: But during the war they were in the services?

Hobbs: Two of them were in the service. One of them was with the Steel Corporation and had enlisted first in the hospital unit in Cleveland when it was just torn all to pieces. But when he was a baby he had had a mastoid so when they found he only had one ear they wouldn’t take him; so he didn’t get into actual service. The other two—

Groueff: You have three sons?

Hobbs: Three, yeah. One of them is in New York today and he’s a naval architect and the designer of the best of the aircraft rescue vessels for the war. Since then after the war was over, he went into business for himself as a designer of pleasure craft, high-speed craft. And along about April 1942, the Gibbs and Cox people contacted me and asked if I would give them some help.

I assisted them in connection with the advanced design of combat ships and it had to do mostly with the power end of it because that was the experience that I had because I had my feet in the water and built and designed boats for all my life. That was the end, so I went down and after I had sat in on a number of joint conferences in connection with buoys and turbines and piping and so on. In fact, they actually asked me to procure some of the equipment that was to go into these ships because I had designed it myself and had gone to a certain company and had them build it. And so I actually detailed the design, I worked with General Electric and criticized their design severely, and I threw out a lot of their unnecessary stuff.

I had one fundamental that’s very valuable, and that is whenever you have trouble with a piece of equipment if possible throw out the equipment. That is any feature, not necessarily the whole thing but if there’s any feature that causes trouble don’t use it again. So in connection with these destroyers and ships, well they had put in a lot of extra piping and a lot of complicated, untrustworthy valves and that type of thing. The very thing that sank the pressure, and I have a guilty complex in connection with the [USS] Thresher which I’ll tell you about later.

After I had been in about three or four conferences, Mr. Gibbs wrote me; he was the foremost naval architect in the world. And one time I was with him they had seventeen types of ships going through the office at once. And a wonderful organizer, a wonderful background, he was written up in Fortune but his personal story is he wanted to be a ship designer and his father wanted him to be a lawyer, and they compromised. He took a law course, had one case, a noise nuisance case of a pump in New York. He won it, but he was made because the judge wouldn’t tell him all he knew about pumps. So that’s the only case he ever tried until he started in to design ships.

He designed the United States liner, the [SS] America, and its group, if you ask him he’s very modest. At a conference in Washington one time on the kind of steel you use and piping for these naval vessels, he asked me to go down, and he called in experts from all over the country. He had 100 or more specialists on steel piping, and as I stood in front of the crowd before he opened up to me, I said to Mr. Gibbs, “I have no confidence or very little confidence that the kind of advice you’re going to get from this bunch is worthless because each one has a hobby of his own special alloy.” And his answer to me was this: “I have a lot of confidence in getting a bunch of people together and talking the subject through.”

He hadn’t told me I was going to take part in the meeting at all, but he called the meeting to order and it was a two-day meeting. He called the meeting to order and turned to me and asked me to present the subject. So naturally it was very short and brief, but right to the point, I recommended that ordinary steel, a small amount of alloy because the same expansion thing that had torn up a lot of equipment, caused plenty of trouble over the country was twice as bad in the super alloys, same as steels as it was in the other. Twice as bad.

And when you come to connect those to turbines or make joints or do that kind of thing, you were just courting a lot of trouble and it wasn’t necessary as long as you didn’t go up above 1,000 degrees. If you go on beyond 1,000 degrees then you got to face all those problems because you have to have a stainless [steel] that will take more temperature than 1,000. Ordinary steel with only less than 5% total alloy will take a lot of temperature and that was the kind I was recommending because we weren’t worried about it.

All these fellas in the room were in the other group. At the end of two days, Gibbs summed up the whole thing by asking two questions.

He says, “Is there anyone in this room who does not believe that we can build a good set of piping for these ships with faradic steel?”

That’s the ordinary steel. There wasn’t a dissenting vote in that whole outfit.

And then he asked one more question “Is there anyone in the room who thinks they could build a better set of piping if they use osteolytic steel?”

One fella stood up, and it was Ernie Robinson, who worked for General Electric. And then Gibbs told this story and it went into the thick minutes of that meeting.

He said, “This reminds me of a political committee in Kentucky. The speaker was getting louder and louder and finally he says, is there a Republican in the room?”

One fella stood up, and he started giggling and he said, “How does it feel to be the only one in the room?”

He said, “Mr. Chairman, Mr. Speaker I’ll tell you how I feel. I feel like I’m the only thoroughbred with a bunch of jackasses.”

In other words, he wanted to get credit for the courage of his convictions, which was fine. They built it out of faradic and saved money and built —

Groueff: Built what you recommended.

Hobbs: That’s right, because it eliminated these other possibilities of trouble.

Copyright 1965 Stephane Groueff. From the Stephane Groueff Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Exclusive rights granted to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.