Erwin Branahl, Retired Engineer and McDonnell Douglas Executive


Chancellor George, Faculty members, Students, Parents, Friends,

I am 88 years old and have attended many commencement exercises. I remember two things about the speakers - First, I can't remember a single thing they said. Second, they took too long to say it. I can't alter my first remembrance, but I can help the second by cutting my speech short.

I will divide my talk into two parts - the first part aimed at those of you who made wise choices in the selection of the degree you wanted to earn. You now have earned that degree, there are job opportunities available, and you are prepared to begin your career. I encourage you to take the fullest advantage of your education, so that you can achieve the greatest success in your career.

Now for the rest of you, who may be wishing that you had chosen a different degree to pursue. You may feel that you have just wasted 4 years of your life! Not so! Let me tell you that I also fall into this group, and let me explain what subsequently happened to my career.

I had no intention of going to college because my father had been unemployed throughout most of the Great Depression. However, when I was awarded a full honor scholarship to Washington University from Central High School, the principal asked me what I would study. I really didn't know, but since the previous male winners from Central had studied engineering, this was my answer. The principal then asked, "What kind of engineering?" I replied, "What kinds are there?"

He said, "Chemical engineering," which I rejected because I had taken no chemistry courses in high school.

"Electrical engineering," which I rejected because I was afraid of being electrocuted. "Mechanical engineering," which I rejected because I was a real klutz with tools and had taken no mechanical drawing.

Finally, "Civil engineering," which I immediately accepted because I envisioned the romance of going to South America to build dams, bridges, and railroads!

However, early in my freshman year at Washington U., I knew that I did not want to be a Civil Engineer, but I had made my choice and I stuck with it. I graduated with a B.S. in Civil Engineering, but with no intention of working in that field. To some extent I felt that I had wasted 4 years of my life. Not So!

I did not realize all the benefits I had received from my 4 years of studying Civil Engineering. I learned much about personal discipline, studying more than I ever had, learning to solve problems, budgeting my time, setting priorities, and many other useful attributes that I could apply to my career. Relatively few Civil Engineering details were useful to me.

I applied to the Navy for a commission and was awarded an Ensign's commission. The Navy had a very complex radar system called Project Cadillac, which was to be used in the invasion of Japan. The system employed 1300 vacuum tubes (This was before the day of the transistor), and would require a very Competent Radar Maintenance Officer to keep the system up and running. The Navy could not recruit enough men with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering degrees, so they took some people with good academic records in other disciplines, intending to give them the necessary training. I was so chosen and spent 5 months getting pre-radar training at Bowdoin College, followed by 8 months training on Project Cadillac at M.I.T. Imagine my concern when I needed to deal with an 18,000 volt power supply for the magnetron! This was a major reason I had not wanted to get a B.S. E.E. degree in the first place - my fear of electrocution.

Before I could be deployed aboard a capital ship with Project Cadillac, the atom bombs were dropped, and the war was over. Now I had the equivalent of an M.S. in E.E., but I had to wait 10 months for my discharge.

I was sent to Johnsville, PA where the Navy was testing some new missiles. I became involved with the Gargoyle glide bomb. The missile airframe was manufactured by an upstart company in St. Louis called McDonnell Aircraft. The Navy separately procured and installed the autopilot, and I went along on about 10 launches.

One of two things would happen after these launches. If the missile went into a graceful dive to the ground, we knew that the autopilot was not functioning, and the natural stability of the missile produced a smooth trajectory. However, if the missile flew erratically, ending up in a totally out-of-control dive, we knew that the autopilot was functioning.

People simply did not know how to design stable airframe/autopilot combinations. I decided I could try to play that role at McDonnell, where I was hired after my discharge.

They assigned me to a new missile program that was just being staffed up. The man who would be my boss for the next 25 years was hired to be in charge of all the technologies employed in the missile. He had just gotten a Ph.D. in missile controls from M.I.T. , and he assigned development of the control system to me. He gave me his thick thesis on the subject and told me to follow the thesis, which I did. After that, we enjoyed a very successful flight test program of over 20 flights with no control failures. My career at McDonnell had just been given a great start!

Over the years, I proceeded to be promoted until I became Vice-President of Engineering for the Astronautics Company in St. Louis. This was followed by a promotion to General Manager of the Astronautics company. Many people asked me what Bachelor's Degree I held and they were always surprised when I said, "B.S. in Civil Engineering."

The Astronautics Company prospered with these products:
Mercury - a one man orbital spacecraft.
Gemini - a two man orbital spacecraft.
Skylab - a laboratory for astronauts to live and
Work, with a volume equal to a three
bedroom house.
Harpoon - an anti-ship missile carried by all
Navy combat ships, many aircraft,
and some submarines. Sold to 20
foreign governments, 8000 had been
sold when I retired. They are still in
production 23 years later.
Cruise Missile - We started out designing and
building the guidance system, but
ended up building the entire missile
in competition on an annual basis
with General Dynamics. We were
usually the annual low bidder.

I ran the Astronautics Company for 13 years.

Mr. Mac, as our company's founder preferred to be called, could foresee a cutback in defense spending once the Cold War ended, so he asked his senior officials to diversify our company using our aerospace technology to do so. I responded with 4 diversifications, all of which achieved some measure of success.

The most successful actually became a profitable company. It was a fully automated system that identified 10 micro organisms present in urine, enumerated them, and tested the efficacy of various antibiotics in treating them. All of this was done in half the time at half the cost, with more accuracy than the laborious manual methods formerly used. We sold this system to all the hospitals in the United States.

After I retired, the company was sold to the French for $400 million.

The next diversification came because of the oil crisis of the 1970's. People wanted new sources of power but were afraid of the nuclear fission plants because of the danger of meltdown and explosion. Nuclear fusion could solve most of the danger of the fission plants, but because a practical fusion plant was still decades away, this created an excellent diversification opportunity. We rapidly became the leading commercial company supporting the government activities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, culminating in our winning a $200 million contract to build a nuclear fusion test reactor at Oak Ridge. After we had successfully completed half of the job, however, the oil crisis ended, and our politicians decided to cancel the program because they did not want to spend money on a program not expected to materialize for at least 20years.

The next diversification came because NASA desperately wanted to find something to manufacture in space. We came up with a substance called erythropoietin, which is manufactured by healthy kidneys and produces red blood cells. Kidneys on dialysis do not manufacture enough erythropoietin, and so these people needed many blood transfusions. Erythropoietin could be manufactured on the ground but could not be purified enough for injection in humans. We developed a purification device called electrophoresis, which functioned 50 times more effectively in the zero gravity of space than on the ground. NASA recognized the potential of this device and gave us two free rides aboard the Shuttle for our equipment and our astronaut, Charley Walker, which proved that our system indeed worked! I negotiated future costs for using a portion of the Shuttle to manufacture pure erythropoietin. But then, the Shuttle disaster occurred, killing all the crew, the Shuttle program was delayed, and a small company called Amgem found a way to get enough purification for use in humans. This resulted in our entire program being cancelled.

The last diversification came because I wanted to compete for unmanned satellites, which generally were small devices with state-of-the-art RF communication systems. We needed a topnotch supplier of RF communications to be our supplier, but these companies all refused because they wanted to be the prime contractor for the entire satellite. So, we decided to leap frog their technology and develop laser communications. We developed a system producing 1 gigabit per second of data (1 Billion bits).

We received a $150 million U.S.A.F. contract to build and launch our laser communication system. We were on schedule and budget when I retired, and expected to launch in the next few months. Then, when my program manager died of cancer, the man who had taken my job, not knowing much about technology, replaced the very effective program manager with the smartest laser technology expert we had, who regrettably knew little about program management. The program foundered, and it was never launched.

As you can see, the technical details of my civil engineering degree were almost never applicable to my career - but the 4 year education I received most certainly was. As I said earlier, I acquired personal discipline, studying more than I ever had before. I learned to solve problems, budget my time, set priorities, and all the other attributes that proved critical in my career.

I strongly urge you to consider the education you received in the same manner and apply it to whatever you decide to do in the future. I wish you all the greatest success and God's blessing.