What a Parsons!


Thread Starter

Tom Bullock

What a Parsons!

On Thursday night, September 10, 1998, John Parsons was honored for having invented numerical control 50 years ago. I was thrilled to have been among the 200 who were invited to this gala event and was further thrilled to have had a chance to chat with him about it. John's patent, filed in May of 1952 and issued in 1958, was iron-clad, but his life during that time was filled with sweat, turmoil, and trouble.

John had no college degree and started as a tool room apprentice. His father gave him much latitude and nurtured him to the presidency of Parsons Corporation. As president, he steered the company into defense work during WWII and soon into the manufacture of wing panels and helicopter rotor blades. The company grew to over 700 people by the time John conceived of numerical control.

In the manufacture of the rotor blades there were many calculations that had to be made to properly identify the surface. In December 1946, John had the idea of using punched cards for the calculations. Once he was able to numerically define the part, he had the idea of using that data to direct the machine.

The task of making things work went to Frank Stulen, John's Vice President of Engineering. John was the idea man and Frank engineered those ideas. This teamwork has endured throughout the last 50 years and is still evident today, but in a much different way. You see, John will be 85 on October 11 and carries a long white and red cane. Frank sees to it that he has food on his plate and helps him locate the food morsels with his fork. He seemed ever near by to ensure that John would be able to manipulate the obstacle course of tables and people. Aside from his loss of sight, John is very fit for his age and his mind is unusually sharp. He rattles off dates, people, times, and events as if they happened yesterday. Although soft spoken, he speaks confidently and with authority.

I asked about the sweat, turmoil, and trouble. When John and Frank recognized the magnitude of the effort to use the calculated data to run a machine, they approached MIT. In July of 1949 John signed an agreement for MIT to design and build the electronics. The coordination of this effort was very trying for John, especially when he had a company to run. Also, the funding for the MIT work was a drain on the company. In January of 1952, the financiers (and majority stockholders) decided that this was too much for one man and fired him from his own company (although he was retained as a consultant). In September of that same year, MIT successfully demonstrated a numerical control directing a machine tool. Never mind that it contained hordes of vacuum tubes and ran only a few hours between failures. Because Parsons Corporation had cash flow problems, MIT was forced to find other funding to keep the project going. As numerical control became commercialized, John was rewarded with royalties. He was also reinstated as president of his company. In 1955, Bendix was granted a license under the patent and eventually all rights were sold to them. John distributed the revenue to those who had helped him, leaving only a small amount for himself. It was John's concepts and perseverance along with Frank's good engineering sense that created the technology to make factory automation viable.

This automation concept has had a dramatic impact on living standards to the point where goods can now be manufactured so inexpensively that most of them are uneconomical to repair.

I am proud to have met John on his special night and I will be forever grateful for his vision in creating an industry which has touched so many of our lives.

Let us also give thanks to Chuck Hutchins who conceived of this night and personally invited 140 people. And, also, thanks to his company MDSI and it's President, Larry Schultz, who organized, coordinated and hosted the evening and recorded it for posterity.

Let me close by summarizing the evening in John's opening words: "Well, this is quite an affair".

Tom Bullock can be reached at Industrial Controls Consulting, a division of Bull’s Eye Marketing, Inc. (www.bullseyenet.com). Contact Tom at (920) 929-6544 or email [email protected].