10-Questions with Ed Miller ‘1946

Ed Miller friends and family
Ed Miller (center) and family, including three generations of proud Rensselaer Graduates. Photo Credit: Nick Miller
From NROTC and steam turbines to botany – a story of life-long learning!
Concept & interview by: Shekhar Garde, gardes@rpi.edu

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and grew up in Schenectady, NY. I entered RPI in the fall of 1942, commuting from home. I had been a Scout as I grew up and my Scoutmaster and most of his assistants were Engineers at General Electric. They inspired me toward engineering and made GE a natural career choice after I got out of the Navy. It was the Navy program that kept me at RPI in the class of '46 as a Mechanical Engineer. I consider it a lucky day when I discovered the NROTC program officers were interviewing. In the interval between being accepted in the NROTC and being called up for service, I and some other  RPI students took a cushy week night job at the Rensselaer County Jail, manning a switchboard for the Air Raid Defense program. We didn't get paid but got our room and board. Well everyone at the jail got room and board, but we could come and go!
I have always felt I got a good education and a can-do philosophy at RPI. I am proud that some of my sons (and one granddaughter) also graduated from RPI.

What attracted you to RPI?

We were too poor to think college. My goal in high school was to get in the GE apprentice program and become either a draftsman or a tool maker. This changed with the war and I decided to get in a semester of college before I would be drafted at age 18. My guidance counselor recommended RPI perhaps knowing of their policy of accepting almost anyone at that time…

What was your RPI experience like?

It was all pretty serious. There were no vacation periods. One semester followed the Monday after the last semester ended. Fortunately the semesters were set up with 5 weeks of “advance”, one week (5 days) of “review”, and one week of final exams. If you got a 3.6 average in the advance and review, you were exempt from final exams and got a week’s vacation! Ta Da!  For NROTC students, the exam week was usually spent doing convoy duty out of Staten Island, NY.  I think we all looked forward to this break in the scholastic routine.

The NROTC and V12 program (U.S. program to supplement the force of commissioned officers during World War II) students lived on campus and had bed checks at 11 pm on weekdays and were up early for calisthenics. Weekends we were free to socialize with Russell Sage College students or Samaritan Hospital nurses. Lois Graham, (daughter of Pop Graham - a popular coach) was our only (and first!) female Mechanical Engineer in the class of 1946. There were some female architects but we had little contact with them in our classes.  There were also some Curtis Wright girl students in a special program (a women’s aeronautical engineering training and employment program sponsored by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation), but most of us were too busy to notice.

Tell us about your career.

Upon graduation and commissioning, I went on active duty with the Navy, too late to get to the Pacific and the submarine war had been won in the Atlantic. In 1946, I joined GE's test program and ended up in the Steam Turbine Department’s engineering section. After a few years I became a first level manager, and later a section manager responsible for the Department’s thermodynamic development programs. Those were exciting times with ratings of steam turbine generators growing to over a million kWs, some with supercritical steam conditions. We also developed steam turbines for nuclear applications. I am proud of these accomplishments, but a little sad that the power industry has changed so much with wind power, photovoltaics (PV), and tanking of the nuclear option that the technical areas where I became expert are no longer as active.

How have things changed over your 70 years?

I probably would not be accepted at RPI with today's high standards. In 1942, RPI took almost anyone (male) and tossed the ones that couldn't cut it. Fortunately I made the cut. Slide rules instead of computers, hours spent at drafting boards, learning how to use ink in the drafting tools. One advantage of slide rules is that we learned not to give answers to 6 significant figures just because we knew pi that accurately! We also learned how to do reality checks as the slide rule didn't locate decimal points. It kept us from getting totally garbage answers.

How do you spend your time now?

I am curator of the Native Plant Collection, which I created at the Landis Arboretum in Esperance, NY. Some friends say the job (volunteer) is my passion. Could be, it keeps me busy and I believe it is the best place (hands down) for anyone to see NY's native woody plants.

Is there a particular memory of RPI that you would like to share?

Saturday mornings were laboratory days! One lab was a session in the blacksmith shop. I don't think I ever used that knowledge. Another lab had us measuring efficiency and power of steam engines. This was applicable on my navy assignment to a subchaser, which had triple expansion steam engines. One nice outdoor lab was surveying. I don't remember much else. 

What are your favorite books?

Several books by McCullough have been my favorites. The ‘Path between the Seas’ made me particularly proud to be a GE engineer, and ‘The Great Bridge’ proud to be an RPI graduate. Another favorite author is Bernard DeVoto, who wrote excellent non-fiction accounts of western exploration. My favorite nature writer is Edwin Way Teale.

What has RPI meant to your family?

I feel that I got a very good education and work ethic at RPI, and I am proud that three of my sons and one granddaughter have also graduated from there. My youngest son, bonded with several other students and they have maintained close friendships over the years. Their children have also become close friends and we all do things together, such as ski vacations and attending 70th reunions!

What is your message to current RPI students?

My most important invention came just before I retired.
I became a competent botanist after taking up the study on retirement.
After 40 years of skiing, a stranger asked me when I had learned to ski. I told him I preferred to think I was still learning and I am getting better!