Chapter 4: In the World of Research

1. From Chemistry to Electronics
“Goodbye, engineer” he said. He was the director general and a textile engineer of an important thread factory in the Venice area. I had just finished interviewing him and telling him of a new process, based on static electricity, for manufacturing threads. Even though a certain generosity on his part might have been expected, it was the first time that I, though by chance an economist, had been given such a title. I was first surprised and immediately afterwards happy to have obtained, in the field, a testimonial that to me was as important as my university degree.
It was 1970, five years after I had begun to work at Battelle. At that time I led a research group working in the textile industry that was beginning to do rather well. Although initially this had not been the case.
When they had hired me they had counted on my experience in the chemical industry where I had been very much involved with plastic materials. The economics department was beginning a weighty study on plastic materials in the building process. I learned very quickly, to my horror, that all those economists had limited ideas and knowledge about plastic materials and could not distinguish PVC from polystyrene. I therefore set about getting out of the project and fortunately they found a number of good chemists within the Institute to take my place. But they did not forgive me for sneaking out of it.
Since while in the chemical industry I had dealt with textile fibres they decided that I could take charge of a study dealing with this sector. The study was for a Belgian company and concerned assessing the market for electronic measuring devices applied to the main textile machines. More specifically it concerned – and this was worse – devices for measur­ing, at a distance, the temperature of a wire that passed at great speed in a heating pipe so that it could be twisted in such a way as to make it elastic (a little like a metal spring). The thread in question was nylon based (polyamide) and was used in the manufactur­ing of elastic fabrics for swimming costumes and some underwear products.
I was sunk in a black hole. I was not even exactly sure what electronics was. They sug­­gested I reflect on what a radio was. I had never seen a textile machine and I found myself having to distinguish a loom from a spinning machine. I turned to Battelle’s textile machine expert, Maurice Poull – who would become my great friend and my companion in the adventure that is research. He was astonished by the level of my incompetence and he practically pushed me out of the door. I, however, kept going back, many times, openly admitting my ignorance, a technique that I would often use as my first line of defence.
During that period which lasted about three months I always had stomach cramps, and I probably just managed in time to avoid an ulcer. However, sticking to the habits learnt when I was promoting Montecatini products in sectors I did not know – although I was teamed up with an engineer – I began to make an implausible number of visits, up to five a day, in Switzerland and to other European countries, wherever I could enter an electronics factory, textile or mechanical. The name Battelle was a great help.
Little by little I learned many things, using a lot of prudence in my initial questions. After some visits I was able to risk questions such as “In other sectors or in other factories they told me this. Do you believe that’s right?” This question was also my way of hiding my own ideas, without the risk of having stupidities attributed to me. After twenty or thirty visits I began to feel more secure. Besides, Maurice Poull had finally accepted his role as teacher and explained to me the workings of the electrostatic spinning machines that he had produced.
It was interesting to learn that the great majority of experts are willing to be your teachers, within the boundaries of what for everyone is a confidential circle. The advantage of research at Battelle was that one could explore new areas where, in most cases, there was no problem concerning so called industrial espionage. It was all about combining ideas and new possibilities.
There were borders that were not to be breached – it was a matter of ethics – but it was simply a case of remaining within the area of the profound logic involved in the examination of new products, procedures or new ideas that were not yet patented or licensed.
At the end of all these months of suffering I had managed to avoid an ulcer, at least from the psychological viewpoint. Maurice Poull had ended up welcoming me as a friend and came up with the idea of having me accompany him on his trips to non-francophone countries, including Japan, as his English, German or Italian interpreter. And so it was that without knowing it, I prepared for my informal exam at the Venice spinning mill.
During our travels this very rigorous and precise and often distant engineer revealed an enthusiastic nature for science, technology and also, deep down, for a certain kind of poetry. His passion to talk about things he liked would exceed the speed of light, the absolute of 300000 Km per second, I thought. He would devise plans for new solar panels to be used in space to produce energy, or again, ideas for making use of the air flow (pneumatic) in place of electricity flows for new command systems for machines (even for typewriters).
At the Battelle Institute Maurice Poull worked “too” well. While the researchers had to work in such a way as to spend, on average, 80% of their total work time on projects (billed to clients), he and his group reached 95%. He was not granted a medal. On the contrary he annoyed those who struggled much more to achieve a good average. Even Battelle Geneva, in the good years that I spent in this Institute, was an environment touched with human weaknesses. When the Geneva centre entered a period of crisis (I had already left by then) Maurice Poull found himself increasingly isolated. The principle of the use of static elec­­tricity in textile spinning which should have showered him in glory, had not obtained the hoped for success and he struggled more than a little to find new work. A modern literature is yet to be produced that is truly able to get to the bottom of the dramas and human adventures as they occur in the multiple and complex realities of our time, in such varied fields of research, industry and economic enterprises that constitute our daily lives.
Maurice Poull ended up back at Epinal, the city of his birth, where he had built himself a house. Years later his wife and daughter came to visit me at the Geneva Association. He had died. He had been repairing his car and had inadvertently put his head between a rock and the front of the vehicle which was at a standstill on a slope. The brake had not been properly applied and the vehicle had crushed him. His wife knew that I had greatly admired him and felt true friendship for him. She was so surprised that one could appreciate such an apparently solitary and closed man. It was clear that she wanted her daughter to hear something about her father that perhaps had been difficult for her to perceive. I did my best. It was the least I could do for my engineering “professor” to whom I owe the “diploma” obtained in Venice.
After my first “punishment” with a study on electronics for textile machines they palmed another one off on me: the future of the great cog wheels for the gears in Europe. This was not simple either, but I was able to begin to formulate the concept that, in certain conditions (for the great cog wheels, their high costs and their dimensions), their repair and return to service were the best economic and technical solution. When the cog of one of these broke, it was worthwhile to reconstruct it on the same wheel. Starting from this experience I formed my first ideas on utilisation and maintenance costs in the new service economy.

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