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First-Hand:My Career as an Electrical Consultant

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Submitted by Aubrey G. Caplan

The inspiration to become an "engineer" came from Alexander Botts and the Earthworm Tractor stories which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post magazine. At the age of ten, I read books on civil engineering and learned the names of all the types of bridges. I also interviewed a prominent local civil engineer and expressed my interest in highways and bridges to him. He was not too encouraging. He told me that with a name like "Caplan," I would find prejudice in this restricted field. He said I would be better off becoming an electrical engineer because firms like "RCA" were unbiased. There would be more chances of a job in the electrical field than in civil engineering. With this in mind, I changed my basic interests to electricity. I learned to repair lamps and electric irons, built a telegraph set and studied basic electricity.

In the fall of 1941, after finishing high school, I began college at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) but soon ran out of money. It became necessary to earn enough money to buy books, to eat lunches, and date girls. I took a job at a supermarket working from four p.m. to ten p.m. each night and all day Saturday for twenty-five cents an hour plus free cigarettes. This lasted until January since I was doing most of my sleeping in class. I also repaired appliances. I remember charging two ladies five dollars for plugging in their refrigerator which had become disconnected. This was not too exorbitant a charge, since it took two hours travel time by streetcar to reach the job site.

The job I took was with the local power company, Duquesne Light Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was hired and trained to be a power salesman in the commercial division. My job was to promote the use of electricity by designing fluorescent lighting, air conditioning, electric cooking for restaurants, miscellaneous electrical uses, and larger service entrances when required by the increased usage. During my time at the power company, I received my professional engineering license.

On this job I learned utility rates, electrical distribution, wiring design, advanced lighting techniques, restaurant layout, air conditioning sizing, trouble shooting, diplomacy, and salesmanship. I designed new lighting for everything from a chicken coop for a farmer who wanted time clocks to fool the chickens, to a bordello owner who didn't want to use very much light. In my job and travels, I met numerous architects, builders, property managers, and supermarket owners; these contacts would prove valuable to me in the years to come.

In 1955, a small shopping center was going into my territory. The plans were so bad that I sat down and redesigned the entire layout in order to get logical bids. After construction got under way, the owner called me into his office. He said, "I understand you redesigned my whole job. Without your help, I would have been in big trouble. What do I owe you?"

I replied that I did this work as part of my job at the power company. Also, I did it for my benefit as well as his and that he owed me nothing. His reply was for me to pickup drawings for six more jobs and this time to send him a bill for time spent on his work after five p.m. He did not ask for a price.

This was the start of my career as an electrical consultant. My patron recommended me to other builders and to architects. From 1955 to 1959, I had two part-time employees working every night and weekends out of my basement. When my income for part-time work exceeded my daytime salary, my accountant said I had to make up my mind whether to quit the power company and go full time on my own, or to turn work away, as I could not do both. In 1959, I said good-bye to the power company and went full time as a Consulting Electrical Engineer.

In the past thirty years, my office has designed over four thousand jobs. Robert, my son, joined the firm. Together we have designed just about every kind of commercial and industrial electrical installation. We designed a summer home in Greece, a food radiation facility in Hawaii, a plutonium laboratory in Japan, a convent-school in the hills of Puerto Rico, and an electric locomotive.

My office has received numerous lighting and wiring design awards. I have had two articles published in E.C. & M. Magazine with my picture on its cover, as being typical of the "bread and butter" engineers, who design the everyday routine jobs. I am still actively engaged in the business of electrical design with no intention of an immediate retirement.

I joined IEEE in 1943 as a Student member. I am also a member of IES, CSI and ACEC. I served as the regional Vice President of the IES in 1976 and as local president of ACEC of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter in 1980. Also, I was honored as "Electrical Man of the Year" in the Pittsburgh Hall of Fame by the Electric League of Western Pennsylvania in 1986.