4/1/1998 | 3 MINUTE READ

Man of Our Age

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1. Who are Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak?

2. Who are John Parsons and Frank Stulen?

I'm willing to bet that most of you certainly know who Jobs is and that that knowledge would prod you to recall that Wozniak was his sidekick, his technical counterpart, at Apple Computer when the company was revolutionizing the computer industry.

But Parsons and Stulen?

I recently saw a photograph taken in 1985 at the White House. Malcolm Baldrige—yes, that Baldrige—then the secretary of Commerce, is at a microphone. Behind him is a group of dark-suited men, including President Ronald Reagan. Among the group are Jobs and Wozniak. And Parsons and Stulen.

The event was the initial presentation of the first-ever National Medal of Technology.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the idea of numerical control (NC). This is where Parsons and Stulen come into the picture. Like the situation with Jobs and Wozniak, Parsons was the idea man and Stulen was the technical expert in the development of a new technology. As the seed of NC grew, there was plenty of dealing and acrimony; there was one part legal drama and one part techno-thriller.

Technological development isn't as straight-forward or as deterministic (i.e., first this, then this, then...and voila!) as you might think.

In some regards, it is sad that Parsons, who will be 85 this year, isn't better known by people in industry, and not just because of his role in NC. It is because Parsons is a man who, throughout his career, lived with a can-do attitude, a let's-get-it-done fortitude that would be beneficial for many of us to adopt in our own lives.

Parsons still resides in Traverse City. His father had established an automotive supply company in the late 1920s in Detroit. When World War II began, the Parsons Co. established a facility in Traverse City in order to do ordnance work—mine and bomb casing manufacture—for the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy. Since that time, John Parsons has made Traverse City his home.

In February I had the opportunity to spend several hours with Parsons to learn about his life.

When he was just 14 years old, he went to work for his father's company. This was not a silver-spoon scenario: He worked in the factory; he learned to run lathes, mills, drill presses, shapers, and grinders; he did die tryout.

While still a teen, he went into sales. He had to deal with purchasing agents at car companies, convincing them to give the Parsons Co. contracts to make trim parts. Asked about that experience, Parsons said that the people he dealt with never took advantage of him—and I can imagine many of you in the supplier industry thinking, with a long sigh, "Those were the days..."

One interesting aspect of the company's move into the munitions work: Parsons admits that they really didn't know how to do it. But at that time, auto and auto-related companies found themselves needing to produce tanks and planes and ships and bombs. Parsons said that inexperience notwithstanding, he was determined to be the best.

During the 1940s, helicopters were really taking off, literally and figuratively. Parsons had been told by the former head of Ford's TriMotor aircraft operations that he should get involved in the helicopter industry. So, in 1943, John Parsons got on the phone and tried to get Igor Sikorsky on the line. Parsons eventually got an order to produce helicopter rotor blades. He knew as much about helicopter blade production as he'd known about bomb casings. Yet once again, Parsons and his colleagues developed what was needed.

Work on airfoil templates led to using IBM punch card machines to help determine table and cutter settings...which led to a contract from the U.S. Air Force in 1949 to develop what would become the first numerically controlled milling machine.

Parsons was involved in making one-piece kitchen units (burner, refrigerator, storage, etc.) for apartments. He developed the first adhesively bonded helicopter rotor blade. He made fuel lines for the Saturn V rocket that powered the Apollo program. And he did much more.

It wasn't always a life that encountered successes. There were plenty of down turns. But Parsons endured. And that inventiveness and fortitude is something that we can all use a strong dose of.

Hand holding a crystal ball

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