I am sure happy to see that Jim Brady has offered to publish these
letters of Dr. Clarence Hickman. I met Dr. Hickman very briefly,
and heard his talk in Philadelphia about 1979, I think. He was a
very unassuming, modest person with a brilliant mind, but what I was
most impressed with was his keen understanding of basic physical
things and good judgment!
This is so absent today in engineering circles that it is appalling.
For example, just look what the GM engineering department and top
management has done to their company with the world's worst judgment!
They have managed to alienate their world-wide customer base by proving
to everyone that in fact, Brett's immortal line, "Really, my dear,
I don't give a damn!" is straight from the horse's mouth to each one of
us. That includes our families, or children, and lives.
Men like Dr. Hickman were real men who never compromised good judgment
and relied on it. Dr. Hickman would have never designed products for
GM, as soon as he found out what they would be willing to do just to
save a few bucks. We need engineers like Clarence Hickman. As long as
the bottom line is the dollar, these corporations will not hesitate to
stoop to anything necessary to make an extra one, and will ultimately
destroy themselves in the process. "Good on 'em!" It's been a long
time coming. (This is not to say that everyone in the design department
at GM was implicated or knew about their "Molotov cocktails on wheels,"
The differences between men like Dr. Hickman and what we have far too
much of today is astounding, and I hope that everyone will read these
letters and take them to heart, because beyond the humor and wit will
be found good sense, understanding, and genuineness. No great engineer
will ever lack these basics, because it's what made him great.
Always curious, always learning, and easy to correct and talk to about
anything, at any time. He never took physical principles and design
ideas personally, because he knew so many other ways to do the same
thing if needed. In other words, "There's a lot more where that idea
came from, folks, so no problem. If you don't like it that way, I can
always do it this way."
No personal defense system or politics was ever necessary. But on
the other hand, neither would he compromise with the best that could
be done, and he didn't simply walk off talking to himself when he knew
better. He stood up for what he knew was right.
By the way, did anyone know that Dr. Hickman designed the first tape
recorder? He was laughing at the German invention of the wire recorder,
and he said, "Everybody I talked to about it thought it was just amaz-
ing. I thought, 'What a bad design that was.' It wouldn't hold a
recording longer than about three months with serious degrading, and
there was no good way to ever really keep the speed accurate unless
you had some very powerful drive motors that ignored the uneven wire
So he designed one using a film of tape and magnetic oxide coating on,
I think, gutta-percha. How many people realize then that it was
actually Dr. Hickman's invention of magnetic particle tape with its
relatively thin gapped head, configured against the wide recording
medium for great bandwidth, that was ultimately responsible for all the
tape systems we have, today? Just simple, good sense and understanding
of the basics started him off in the right direction, again and again.
He was as reliable as a Rolex.
I suspect that of all his inventions -- from rockets and their mounting
under the wings of aircraft, through the reproducing piano -- the story
of magnetic tape would probably be his greatest single contribution.
I don't know who holds that original patent, by the way, but I did hear
him tell the story of how he did it -- personally. I am sure it is
true. One of the truly great engineers of our era.