TAPE 1, SIDE 1
DR. DEVORKIN: Dr. Gilruth, we always start out talking about early home life, origins, family, get flavor or biographical profile, if you will, of our subjects. I know you were born in 1913, but I don't know the month and the day or the conditions of birth. We also know that you were born in Nashwauk, Minnesota. Could you give me the exact date first?
DR. GILRUTH: It was October the 8th, 1913.
DEVORKIN: What kind of a city was Nashwauk?
GILRUTH: It was a small town, a population of maybe a couple of thousand. It was a mining town in the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota. They were open pit mines, and the iron ore was very, very rich. It's still being mined to some degree, although the mining methods and all that changed greatly.
My father was a school man. He was the superintendent of schools of that little town, and my mother was an ex-school teacher.
DEVORKIN: What was your father's full name and your mother's maiden name?
GILRUTH: My father's full name was Henry Augustus Gilruth. My mother was Francis Marian Rowe. That was her maiden name, Marian Rowe; Rowe is my middle name.
DEVORKIN: For how many generations were your father's and mother's families in Minnesota? Where did they come from, your family origins?
GILRUTH: They had moved to Minnesota. My father was born in Davenport, Iowa, and my mother was born in Bessemer, Michigan. My mother was the daughter of a mining captain. They called them mining captains in those days if they became officials in the mine and had worked their way up from the pit, so to speak. He was born in England, was a Cornishman -- you know there are a lot of mines in Cornwall -- and he came to America because he heard they needed expert iron geologists. They didn't call them geologists, they called them mining captains. He was a self-educated geologist, and he could tell the men where to dig in order to get the rich iron ore.
DEVORKIN: His full name was?
GILRUTH: I don't remember, I just remember the initials, W. C. Rowe.
DEVORKIN: And on your father's side?
GILRUTH: My father was the son of a Methodist preacher, and one of eight children. He was born in Davenport, Iowa, educated at Northwestern University, in liberal arts.
DEVORKIN: Your father was educated in Northwestern?
GILRUTH: Yes, my mother went to Downing, Milwaukee.
DEVORKIN: What is the European origin of your father's side of the family?
GILRUTH: They originally sprung from Scotland. Gilruth is a Scotch name. There are still a few Gilruths. The only one I have ever seen in history was one in J. M. Barrie's book, where he refers to Sandy Gilruth who frequently fell asleep in church.
DEVORKIN: In terms of education, then, your father was educated at Northwestern and your grandfather was a minister?
GILRUTH: That's right, but I was thinking more of my grandfather on the Rowe side of the family; I knew him. I did not know the grandfather on my father's side.
DEVORKIN: So you had more contact with your mother's side of the family?
DEVORKIN: Did your grandfather influence you in early life?
GILRUTH: Yes, he did. He had retired when I knew him, and he used to like to build model boats. I remember, he carved out a model sailboat for me when I was a young boy, and he had as much fun doing that as I had watching him do it!
DEVORKIN: Did he show you how to carve?
GILRUTH: Well, I learned a lot from him, without his specifically acting like he was teaching me. I was very eager to learn and an apt pupil and I did learn a lot of woodworking from him.
DEVORKIN: Woodworking primarily. Were these boats actually models that could float?
GILRUTH: Yes, they would float.
DEVORKIN: So they weren't just pretty things to put in a bottle.
GILRUTH: No, they were things that you would put a sail on, a rudder, then sailed in the little lakes around there.
DEVORKIN: Did you ever think about what it took to build a better boat?
GILRUTH: Yes, I've liked boats very much in my lifetime, and I've spent a lot of time building my own sail and power boat and so on and so forth. I did also have a very good interest in a hydrofoil company with hydrofoil fitted boats.
DEVORKIN: That must have been, of course, recently?
GILRUTH: That was in the 1940s.
DEVORKIN: We certainly will remember that when we get up to the forties, but now we're talking around World War I, of course, you being born in 1913. When did your grandfather pass away?
GILRUTH: Well, we had left Nashwauk, and had moved first to Hancock, Michigan and then to Duluth. We were living in Duluth at the time that he died and I was about ten years old when he died.
DEVORKIN: Did you have constant contact? Was this sort of a large nuclear family that moved together? Did you live with your maternal grandparents?
GILRUTH: We didn't live with them but we always were close, even when we lived in Nashwauk and Hancock. We would visit them at least once a year. Then when we lived in Duluth, why we lived just a block apart, and we did see them certainly a couple of times a week.
DEVORKIN: Going back then to your father, what kind of a person was he, and how would you typify your early relationship with him?
GILRUTH: My father really loved to teach. He was a born teacher, but he was not an engineer. He was really not trained in engineering, although at one time in his teaching career, he did teach science, and while he had a science, literature and arts course at Northwestern, there was very little science in it, mostly literature and Greek and Latin. He had eight years of Latin and eight years of Greek and very little mathematics, lots of English.
DEVORKIN: You say in this lovely essay on your early life that he often read to you and your sister.1
GILRUTH: Yes, he loved to read out loud. He'd read all the classics, and he read them us, my sister and me.
DEVORKIN: Did your mother have any interests along these lines? She was a teacher as well, I understand.
GILRUTH: Yes, she was more mathematically inclined. She used to teach math. But she had never taken calculus. She had not gone beyond algebra and geometry, but she would have been a good mathematician. She also had a lot of training in what you call home economics, baking and cooking, that sort of thing. When we were very poor during the Depression she used to substitute in the schools of Duluth, and she taught most anything that they had in high school in math and home economics.
DEVORKIN: Yes, I was going to ask if she did teach or work afterwards, because as we go through your life here, it's evident that your father was removed from his Hancock, Michigan job because of a difference with the board of education, and you were in some difficult straits there for a while.
DEVORKIN: So she did teach at times?
GILRUTH: She taught in the public schools as a substitute teacher.
DEVORKIN: What were your early interests? You mentioned that you liked games and hobbies, what were they? What were the types of books that you would like to read, yourself?
GILRUTH: I was not an avid reader as a boy. However, I finally got to read a lot I became very much interested in woodcraft and Indian lore.
DEVORKIN: Indian lore?
GILRUTH: Yes, it's part of woodcraft, and I got that from reading books by Ernest Thompson Seaton, who was a writer of boy's books and books on woodcraft back in the days when I was ten or so.
DEVORKIN: Were these books that you were given by your parents, or did you get them from the library or your school?
GILRUTH: I borrowed a book from a boy that had one, and I loved that book so much that my mother bought me that book. It was called Two Little Savages--two boys that went off in the woods for a summer vacation, and they met an old trapper who taught them Indian lore and woodcraft. The book was all about their experiences and what they did, and it told you how to do the things they did. Lovely book.
DEVORKIN: Did you camp and go out in the woods yourself?
GILRUTH: Yes, we lived right across from a woods there in Duluth and we used to have our own camps and gangs and build tepees, and that sort of thing, make our own bows and arrows.
DEVORKIN: Did the kids that you played around with in your childhood have similar interests to yours? Was it a pretty homogeneous group?
GILRUTH: Yes, we had quite similar interests. I think I probably threw myself into more things than they did. That became especially true in aeronautics when I got interested in model airplanes. They were interested to some degree, but they cooled off and I kept on with it, and became very, very interested, and made my own designs after a while, and that sort of thing. I tried to get books and learn about aerodynamics, although you couldn't find much in books on those subjects in those days.
DEVORKIN: Right. Why do you suppose that was so? Why did you focus in on that kind of an interest, at an early age? I take it this was when you were still 10, 11, 12 years old. Were you thought of as being a little peculiar by your friends, because of it?
GILRUTH: I don't think they really did think that. My mother thought that was a fruitless thing to do. Who would want to have that much to do with airplanes? They were not apt to be important.
DEVORKIN: How about your father or your grandfather?
GILRUTH: By the time I was really interested in model airplanes, my grandfather had passed away.
DEVORKIN: But your mother was concerned. How about your father?
GILRUTH: He was always lukewarm until I did something that excelled, and then he became enthused. He would say, "well, now, that's more like it." He would get behind you as long as you were successful.
DEVORKIN: But you evidently weren't reading, and he obviously was a reader.
GILRUTH: Yes, he was a reader, and the things I read were things like American Boy that had articles on model airplanes, and Popular Mechanics, things like that.
DEVORKIN: Okay, that's what I wanted to find out. That's great. How did you get access to these? Did you have subscriptions?
GILRUTH: I had a subscription to American Boy, and that was hard for us in those days because we were so poor that a subscription to a magazine was a big thing.
DEVORKIN: This was in Duluth?
DEVORKIN: You were evidently better off as a family when you were in Hancock, Michigan.
GILRUTH: Yes, we were.
DEVORKIN: How well do you remember your father's problems with the board of education? Could you recount the story of what the difficulty was?
GILRUTH: The difficulty was, Hancock was a poor copper mining town in Michigan, and it was having tough going. The mines were just breaking even, and lots of men were out of work. They mined copper, and they had a refinery there called the Smelts. The copper came out of the ground as native copper. They had to crush the rock away from it and then melt it, and put it in ingots. All those industries around there were just barely staying alive.
It was hard for the school. We had a high school that burned down, when we were on a summer vacation trip,and our father said, "It's a lucky thing that we were away or they would have blamed it on me."
DEVORKIN: Was he unhappy even with that school?
GILRUTH: No, I don't think he even thought about replacing that school.
DEVORKIN: That was just a joke. He obviously was at odds with the Board of Education over many things.
GILRUTH: Yes, he was at odds with the Board of Education. Then when they were willing to go ahead with the old Verville Factory, which was an ex-factory of some kind that they translated into a school, why, he couldn't believe that they would do that. He led an effort to get a bond issue for a new school, and that was the end of his career with the Board of Education.
DEVORKIN: This was a political board more interested in other priorities?
GILRUTH: Well, they probably felt that they just couldn't afford it. They might have been very sincere about it. I think, if they'd had lots of money, they would have been glad to build a school.
DEVORKIN: But they didn't.
GILRUTH: That's right.
DEVORKIN: So he lost his job. That was about when, what year? It was after World War I, as you say. If you have the years we can always fill that in later, I wouldn't want to distract you, if you have it right in your head, that's great.
So you moved from Hancock to Duluth, but evidently your father wasn't able to get a teaching job. Was he blacklisted?
GILRUTH: No, no, he was not blacklisted, but there just weren't jobs. This was before the Depression was called the Great Depression, but things were mighty tough.
DEVORKIN: In the twenties?
GILRUTH: Even in the twenties, yes. So he got a summer job teaching in the Duluth Normal School, and then later on he managed to get a job teaching science in one of the high schools. Finally became the principal of that school.
DEVORKIN: How did this affect your family life? How did your mother cope with the lessened status, the move? Why did you move to Duluth as opposed to some place else? Do you have any recollections of that?
GILRUTH: Well, my mother always wanted to live in Duluth. That's where her mother lived and her father. She had a sister that lived there. It was a nice city. My father thought it would probably be as easy to make a living there as anywhere. We moved to Duluth in 1922.
DEVORKIN: So that was why you moved to Duluth. Your father had summer teaching jobs, but you also indicated that he took on being an insurance salesman for a while.
DEVORKIN: Was he happy with that?
GILRUTH: He hated it. He hated it. He was not an extrovert type of salesman. He hated meeting people and trying to make them buy something they didn't want, which is what a good salesman does.
DEVORKIN: Did your mother substitute teach at this time to help out?
GILRUTH: She certainly did whenever she could, whenever they needed her.
DEVORKIN: What about you, did you take on any summer jobs, paper routes, at this time?
GILRUTH: No, I didn't.
DEVORKIN: Did you want to, to help the family?
GILRUTH: I think I would have, but I never thought of it and they never suggested it.
DEVORKIN: At this point, you're not an only child.
GILRUTH: No, I had a sister two years older than I.
DEVORKIN: What is her full name?
GILRUTH: Jean Marian Gilruth.
DEVORKIN: How was she affected by this move and what were her interests, how were they developing?
GILRUTH: Well, she was a very, very bright girl. I always came along in school after her and I'd hear her teachers say "This boy is in no way like his sister." She was valedictorian in her high school. She went to college, The University of Minnesota with nothing but straight As she never got anything less than an A. She majored in Zoology. And when she graduated with a doctor's degree she promptly got married and never used all that she had learned. She died a very tragic death as a very young mother of cancer in her early thirties.
DEVORKIN: Oh no. That's too bad. Let's go back to talk about the growth of your interests in the years at Duluth. You indicated you went to a normal training school, was that a standard public school?
GILRUTH: No, that was a state school that educated would-be teachers.
DEVORKIN: So even in grade school they had a system for preparing teachers?
GILRUTH: No, no, I was not being prepared to be a teacher. I was a person going to a school that was training teachers. Of course there was a supervisor in every case, that was a very good teacher, so there was a line-up of people that wanted to go to this school's normal school because it was a very good school. I learned a lot there. The best families in Duluth were sending their children there.
DEVORKIN: Did you get in because of your father's connections?
GILRUTH: Yes, I got in there because my father knew the president of the Duluth Normal School. So he was able to get me in there.
DEVORKIN: I see. Was this close to where you lived?
GILRUTH: Yes, the East End, and I enjoyed being there. Although the children were all of very, very wealthy families, iron families, that owned iron interests.
DEVORKIN: They were out of your class economically?
GILRUTH: Oh, I can remember some of those children would have $50 bills in their pockets, at a time when $50 was almost an unbelievable amount of money to me.
DEVORKIN: Were your parents sensitive to this? Your sister must have gone through this, too.
GILRUTH: She didn't go to that school. She was two years older than I, and she would have been getting in just before the final grade and it wasn't the thing to do. So she went right into -- oh she skipped a lot of grades, too -- she went right into 9th grade, which was in high school, there, when she came in.
DEVORKIN: What were the teachers? Were there any teachers at the Normal Training School that you recall? You did give an anecdote about one particular teacher.
GILRUTH: Yes, I knew the supervisors, of course, because we had them for two years. The first was Miss Smith, whom I had for the 5th and 6th grades, and then Miss Horn, who was really the best teacher, who I had on the 7th and 8th grades. We had all these training teachers who came in under them, who would teach math or English or something like that. But every week the supervisor, Miss Horn, would take over and run at least one session of the teaching, so that we got very good, I think; we did it well. We had no trouble when we went into the regular high school.
DEVORKIN: So the supervisory teacher is not always in the room.
GILRUTH: No, no, she was not always in the room. Of course, some of those practice teachers were very good. Some of them didn't have discipline, and some did.
DEVORKIN: Where did they come from? Was there a normal school close by?
GILRUTH: Yes, this was the normal school.
DEVORKIN: Oh, I see. So you were actually --
GILRUTH: It was the training department of the Duluth teacher's college.
DEVORKIN: I see, very interesting. So in some strange way you were exposed to a college atmosphere as a young child. How did you feel about that? Did you see yourself going through that same school and following in your father's footsteps at this time?
GILRUTH: No, I never did. I was going to be something else. I was going to build something, I wasn't sure what.
DEVORKIN: You were definitely going to build things, let's talk about those things. When can you remember building your first airplane model? What drove you specifically to airplanes, not boats, do you think?
GILRUTH: Well, I built some boats, too. But I thought the airplane was much more fascinating. I started building model airplanes before the age of balsa wood and piano wire, Japanese tissue and ambroid. When The American Boy magazine came out with those things, that was a revolution but I had learned about that technology from the Duluth NEW TRIBUNE, which was our local newspaper. The newspaper had imported a man from Chicago who was a model airplane builder, champion, to teach a class of Duluth boys who might want to attend. This is how I got sort of a giant step into that business.
DEVORKIN: This is Mr. Rappold.
GILRUTH: Mr. Rappold, yes.
DEVORKIN: Had you heard of him by reputation before he came?
GILRUTH: No, I hadn't. I'd never heard of him.
DEVORKIN: You mentioned balsa wood, piano wire, Japanese tissue, and what was the fourth thing?
DEVORKIN: What is that?
GILRUTH: That was a special glue that you used to glue the balsa wood together. You could make the butt joints with ambroid and it was as strong as the wood. Of course the wood wasn't very strong. It was fast drying.
DEVORKIN: Japanese tissue was what?
GILRUTH: Was a type of tissue paper that is stronger than ordinary tissue paper, made with silk threads in it, and then of course you put that on with banana oil.
DEVORKIN: Were these things readily available to you as a child?
GILRUTH: No, no, they weren't. At first you got it through the newspaper, and I guess Rappold was able to get it and bring it from Chicago. But then very shortly after that, there were enough boys building model airplanes that some of the stores began to carry balsa wood. I found that you could buy balsa wood at the local chair factory. They used it for packing. It's such soft wood that they could take a brand new chair, all finished and everything, and put balsa wood wedges in it and they could ship it and it wouldn't mar, it was very soft. And I could get a great big piece of balsa wood from that chair factory for a very nominal amount of money.
DEVORKIN: What did you use before these things were available to make models?
GILRUTH: I made models out of white pine, and I used rubber cut out of old inner tubes, and wrapping paper. You could make an airplane model that would fly, but of course you couldn't get any of the duration that you could with these super materials.
DEVORKIN: Right. I want to ask you a few questions about what tools you had available. You mentioned you had a little workshop in the basement.
DEVORKIN: How did you obtain your tools and what kinds of tools did you have?
GILRUTH: My father always had a few tools, things like hammers, handsaws and chisels. I remember I got a set of chisels from my uncle who knew I liked to work with my hands. My grandmother in Duluth used to give me things like tools for Christmas. Balsa wood was such soft wood that you could make a circular saw just out of an old gear wheel.
DEVORKIN: A little clock gear.
GILRUTH: Yes, anything sharp, with a sewing machine motor -- mymother had a sewing machine motor, I stole that away from her.
DEVORKIN: You cannibalized things.
GILRUTH: I made some power tools that I could work balsa wood with and made long strips and so on. So that was what I did for my model making. I had a pretty good workshop, and you know, with razor blades and things like that, you could work balsa wood very well.
DEVORKIN: Oh yes. What was your motive here in making these models? Did you want to make models that emulated planes that you knew existed, real planes, or just something that flew?
GILRUTH: No, they had model airplane contests, where the model airplane that would fly the longest would win a prize. They had them in the Iron Range, and of course there were national meets.
DEVORKIN: Can you recall when these contests started, when the first Tribune contest was, the approximate year?
GILRUTH: Around 1925, I guess. I don't know.
DEVORKIN: So you were about 12 years old. And then they became pretty typical after this. Did newspapers usually sponsor them?
GILRUTH: Newspapers sponsored them, and I don't think they kept on doing it.
DEVORKIN: Was there any particular name in the newspaper, was it the publisher, one of the editors? Where would the announcements appear? Did the newspapers have sections at that time?
GILRUTH: No, they just made a story. They would put it on the front page when they had the contests. They gave people publicity who did well, and they got a lot of the boys there in Duluth to become interested in building models.
DEVORKIN: I remember when I was a kid and then through my teenage years I made telescopes, and I both wanted to make telescopes that really would allow me to see the planets and stars and everything, but also I was concerned with how they looked, their aesthetics. I don't know whether that was good or bad, but I can imagine many times making compromises or wanting to, just to make it look a little more the way I thought it should. Did you have any similar sense or was that not a concern of yours?
GILRUTH: No, I was concerned only with making the -- well, of course I wanted it to look nice. I wanted the workmanship to be good. But I didn't care whether it looked like somebody's airplane or not. If I thought, I was a proponent of the pusher, put the tail surface out in front, I wanted everything to be lifted, so I cared very little about whether it looked like a World War I airplane or Lindbergh's airplane, although I did build a model of Lindbergh's airplane. I did a little of both. When I made a model of Lindbergh's airplane, then I tried to make it look very much like his airplane.
DEVORKIN: Did that one fly, was that intended to?
GILRUTH: Yes, it would fly, but it wasn't a very good flier. The propeller was too small and so forth.
COLLINS: What were the criteria of evaluation of these contests, how did they evaluate them?
GILRUTH: Usually it was endurance, the one that stayed up the longest.
DEVORKIN: Was there any kind of control? These were all free flying rubber band powered?
GILRUTH: In my time they were all rubber band powered.
DEVORKIN: Was there any modeling with small gas engines?
GILRUTH: Not in my time.
DEVORKIN: You didn't read about anybody doing that anywhere at that time?
GILRUTH: No. No. I didn't stay with it for very many years.
DEVORKIN: Did you have other interests in building things other than airplanes at that time? Were you interested at all in radio or electricity?
GILRUTH: Well, I did build a radio. I built a radio, but I didn't have a great love for that field as I had for aviation, aerodynamics.
DEVORKIN: What got you to build the radio, though? I'm curious.
GILRUTH: I guess I wanted to build a radio because I wanted to know something about it, and, I really don't know why. Because a lot of other kids were doing it and I thought I'd do it, too.
DEVORKIN: Were there more kids building radios than airplanes?
GILRUTH: Oh yes, yes. Some of my friends from grade school kept with it all the time and became experts and are still experts, like Bob Silliman who's become a very high-priced electronics fellow.
DEVORKIN: That's one question that I like to ask -- any of these kids, either from Duluth or earlier on from Hancock, have you kept in touch with them and maintained contact?
GILRUTH: I have in Duluth. I haven't kept contact with the boys in Hancock.
DEVORKIN: But in Duluth you do.
DEVORKIN: Who are they, was Silliman one of them?
GILRUTH: Silliman was one of them.
DEVORKIN: Where is he now?
GILRUTH: He is in Washington, Silver Spring, has a consulting firm, with his son. Gee, I don't know of anybody else. Art Wright, who is retired now. He went to work for the Telephone Co. and went pretty far in the ranks of that. But not many of the fellows that I was with do I know about.
DEVORKIN: Could you re-live that first airplane contest that the TRIBUNE sponsored, the one where you came in third? You read about it in the paper, I take it?
GILRUTH: I read a headline that said, "The DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE is going to sponsor a model airplane class," and the boys that were interested could volunteer to take the class, and they had a building -- a big room downtown somewhere, where Rappold would do this.
DEVORKIN: Rappold was already there? What was his full name?
GILRUTH: I don't know. He ran the class and told us what we were supposed to do, and gave us a kit -- strips of balsa wood and a block that you carved the propeller out of -- and told us what to do. And we went to work right there. We built them right at the room there, put them together there.
DEVORKIN: Did you have to ask your parents' permission to do this?
GILRUTH: Oh sure, I think so. We had to get their support. But I had no trouble with that. They thought it was fine.
DEVORKIN: Didn't cost any money?
GILRUTH: Didn't cost a cent.
DEVORKIN: Were you among friends? Did you know the other boys there?
GILRUTH: I knew some of them, but there were some that I hadn't known before.
DEVORKIN: Was this your first contact with balsa wood, banana oil and Janpanese paper?
GILRUTH: Yes, that's right. It was a brand new experience.
DEVORKIN: And was that impressive to you at the time?
GILRUTH: Yes, it was. It was about the time that the AMERICAN BOY MAGAZINE, which doesn't exist any more, used to run articles by a man named Merle Hamburg. I remember, he had what they called a Baby ROG -- ROG stood for Rise off the Ground -- and this was a little model airplane, looked like a mosquito but it had landing gear on it. You'd wind it up, put it on the ground, let it go and it would fly.
DEVORKIN: There are still models like that, stick models basically. Oh yes, I used to make those.
GILRUTH: I used to make those, but I did that after the Rappold experience.
DEVORKIN: But in that experience, you were following a model design that he dictated?
GILRUTH: Yes, absolutely.
DEVORKIN: It had to be?
DEVORKIN: Why was that?
GILRUTH: Nobody thought of not doing it the way he said. It was my first experience with doing it, and I thought, well gee. It wasn't long, though, after that. That model was one of a kind. Later on they had contests where you could bring anything in, and I always had my own design after that. I didn't always win, but I did sometimes.
TAPE 1, SIDE 2
DEVORKIN: What did you think of his design? Was it better? Did you learn things from it, can you recall, over the designs you had been making from pine?
GILRUTH: Oh yes, it was far superior. The material made all the difference in the world.
DEVORKIN: What about the shape of the propeller and stuff like that?
DEVORKIN: I don't think that was too different, because I think the way he laid out a propeller was the standard way you did for model airplanes.
DEVORKIN: This is what you learned from the magazines.
DEVORKIN: So you would look for designs in the magazines and follow the magazines and duplicate their designs.
GILRUTH: I did that at first. I did that with this little Rog, but I very soon after that began to try my own ideas, and I was frustrated because I couldn't find anything that would tell me how I could really be sure that I had what was the best shape and so on and so forth.
DEVORKIN: What kinds of libraries did you have available?
GILRUTH: There was nothing. We had good libraries, but in those days, there was nothing on aeronautical engineering. The first book I ever found in the library, and that was several years later, was one by Max Munk, who is a famous aerodynamicist of the early days. He was with the NACA for a while.
DEVORKIN: Oh yes, we'll talk about him later.
GILRUTH: I got that book, and it was all differential equations, and really esoteric.
DEVORKIN: When you were faced with differential equations, I suppose you were still about 13, 14 years old at this point?
GILRUTH: Oh yes.
DEVORKIN: Did you take the book to your teachers or to your mother, father, and say, "Can you make any sense out of this?"
GILRUTH: I am sure I must have done that, but it was pretty much Greek, and I still don't think I could get very much out of it.
He had a lot of philosophy in there, too.
DEVORKIN: Did this dampen your spirits at all?
GILRUTH: Oh no, no, I thought, gosh this is heavy stuff, this is great. You know, it must be awfully hard to be a good engineer in aeronautics. There were things in it that I could understand. One of his statements was, "All the wind tunnels in the world aren't as valuable as one new scientific thought." He had a low opinion of wind tunnels. He had been fired from NACA at that time, and was kind of bitter about regimented research.
DEVORKIN: Pure experimentation as opposed to modeling?
GILRUTH: Yes, but it wasn't as bad as pure experimentation. There was a lot of background theory in the NACA world.
DEVORKIN: Oh yes, but I'm thinking of his criticisms.
GILRUTH: Well, his criticisms that I learned to know were very one sided, bitter.
DEVORKIN: That certainly was a little later on. You did do some innovation. You talked about your feathering propeller. I'm wondering if you could describe how you came to this and what it is.
GILRUTH: Well, in the outdoor contests, the rules at that time allowed you to use a very light model. There was no wing loading requirement. I had found that I could make a model that would climb real high and then glide, and I had a great chance to catch a thermal current and it wouldn't come down. But it had to have a good gliding ratio, and once the rubber band was spent, dragging that propeller caused a poor gliding angle. So I had the blades so they'd feather, and all you had was a stop that would hold it when it was being driven, and then when the wind came from the other side of the blade, it would just feather. That was a very simple thing to do. It made a lot of difference in the gliding angle. The other thing I did was to use a black dye on the wings so that you could see it longer.
DEVORKIN: But that wouldn't increase its durability.
GILRUTH: No, but once it was out of sight, it was called dead.
DEVORKIN: Oh, really?
GILRUTH: Sure. They'd have to be able to see it to be sure it was there.
DEVORKIN: So people could produce model airplanes at this time that could actually go out of sight and be lost?
GILRUTH: Yes, right.
DEVORKIN: I'll be darned. It sounds pretty creative, competitive!
GILRUTH: It was very competitive.
DEVORKIN: Were you first in your group or at least in Duluth to try the feathering technique?
GILRUTH: Yes, I was the first one, yes.
DEVORKIN: Did you read of this in the magazine?
GILRUTH: No, that was my own idea.
DEVORKIN: Subsequently have you learned that anybody tried this before you?
GILRUTH: No, they changed the rules. They changed the rules because it was too easy, it ruined the contest. You'd get it way up there and it would never come down, and you just couldn't have a good contest that way. So they put a wingloading requirement, where you had a high enough wing loading so it would not just glide forever. Then it made a better contest, and you had to have a better aerodynamic design.
DEVORKIN: Did you feel that you were being compromised at all by this?
GILRUTH: No, that came a little bit after my time. They did have contests with twin pushers that had fairly high wingloading, and I built some of those, but there was no way to compete with one of these light single pushers with feathering propellers.
DEVORKIN: By any chance have you kept any of these models, or do you have photographs of them or drawings?
GILRUTH: I only have one photograph, and that's of a model that was sort of like Lindbergh's airplane.
DEVORKIN: I think if the opportunity arises, it would be delightful if you could sketch out at home what some of these models looked like.
DEVORKIN: Certainly if you do find any of the records, they'd be marvelous to have, for your own collection, wherever they're deposited, but a sketch at this time I think as part of this recollection would be most delightful. I'd like to know, in using the paper and everything, did you actually experiment with different air foils?
GILRUTH: Yes. Oh yes, my first contact with NACA was on air foils.
DEVORKIN: Yes, you mentioned that you couldn't get any information locally.
GILRUTH: Right. I read this article about NACA in the Saturday Evening Post, and wrote them, and they sent me a bunch of NACA reports on air foils. I used the median line of these airfoils to make my models.
DEVORKIN: Can you possibly remember the approximate year that this article in the SATURDAY EVENING POST2 appeared? Mid-twenties?
GILRUTH: Yes, it would be in the mid-twenties.
COLLINS: This is before high school then.
GILRUTH: It would be, maybe not before junior high. It was right around the 8th or 9th grade.
DEVORKIN: It would be very nice to recover that article.
GILRUTH: It would, wouldn't it?
DEVORKIN: It might be something we would do to follow up. I assume you don't have the article any more?
GILRUTH: No, I do not.
DEVORKIN: May I ask, how was it brought to your attention? Did your family subscribe to Saturday Evening Post or did you hear about the article?
GILRUTH: No, I found it in a SATURDAY EVENING POST in our house.
DEVORKIN: In your house?
GILRUTH: I don't think we regularly subscribed to it, but we had it in the house and I found it and I couldn't believe my eyes, that there was a place like that in this country!
DEVORKIN: So it wasn't brought to your attention, it was just lying around.
GILRUTH: Well, I looked at it. We didn't have a whole lot of magazines in those days. We all looked at the magazines we had, and of course I looked at that one. When I saw that I didn't let it go. It was a real find.
DEVORKIN: Do you recall what you did? They must have had an address in the article?
DEVORKIN: And you wrote to them, do you remember, a long letter, a short letter? Did you ask for anything specifically?
GILRUTH: I asked for some knowledge, some data on airflow characteristics, because I think they mentioned something about the variable density wind tunnel and all the air foils they were getting data on. I asked for any data they had, and they sent me several reports on airfoils, regular NACA reports.
DEVORKIN: Do you recall, was this a Washington address or was this Hampton, Virginia?
GILRUTH: This was from Langley Field.
DEVORKIN: Langley Field.
GILRUTH: I believe so. Now, I'm not absolutely sure about that.
DEVORKIN: That's very interesting. Did you talk to anybody about this article, your teachers, or anyone about your dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer?
GILRUTH: Yes, I did. I asked lots of questions of my teachers. I don't know if I talked to them about this article. I don't think I did.
DEVORKIN: But then when you got the tech reports, were they readable? This you could understand?
DEVORKIN: So they weren't like Max Munk's articles.
GILRUTH: No, they weren't.
DEVORKIN: What was in them?
GILRUTH: Well, they had graphs showing the variation of the lift coefficient and the drag coefficient with angle of attack, and they had the moment coefficients. Now, I didn't know the significance of moment coefficients, but I did know what lift and draft were. And somehow I got the idea of a median line, using the median line of the airfoil, because I didn't want to make double surface wings, the way big airplanes had. They were too heavy.
DEVORKIN: So these were still single surface wings?
DEVORKIN: But they were curved.
GILRUTH: I did make some double surface wings. Yes, I did make some, but they weren't very successful, with those airfoils.
DEVORKIN: Let's talk a little more about your schooling, and whether any of this model making and interest in aeronautics became part of your schooling. Did you ever use any of this in your class work? You're in the normal school, did that go through junior high school?
GILRUTH: No, that ended with the 8th grade, and none of this happened in the 8th grade. It happened starting in the 9th grade.
DEVORKIN: So you were in high school when all of this took place?
DEVORKIN: What high school did you go to?
GILRUTH: I went to Duluth Central.
DEVORKIN: Was there anything particular about this high school that we should know about?
GILRUTH: Well, first I should say that Duluth Central only went through the 10th, 11th and 12th grades. For the 9th grade, I went to a place called East Junior, which was a school out in the East End of Duluth that I was sent to before. Central High only had room for three years. So I went to East Junior for the 9th grade and then to Central High for the next three.
DEVORKIN: Was this what every kid in your position experienced?
GILRUTH: Yes, in my neighborhood that's what all the kids did. And East Junior had just been built, so that my sister, who also went to 9th grade a couple of years earlier or more, went down to a school that was close to Central called Washington Junior.
DEVORKIN: So these one year schools were sitting around because the high school wasn't big enough to handle everybody.
GILRUTH: Yes, right.
DEVORKIN: Well, what happened to you in your high school years that you feel was significant in preparing you for later on? What did you seek out? Did you seek out the math and science teachers? Were there specialists?
GILRUTH: Yes, we had some, I wasn't a very good student, but I did say I was going to make a good try in mathematics, and things like mechanical drawing. But I really wasn't a great student. I didn't really start to shine until I got into college, for some reason. I think it was probably because I had missed so much school due to my bronchitis that I had as a younger chap that I just didn't do all that well.
DEVORKIN: Mechanical drawing is one thing, I could see how you'd want to learn as much as you could about that, and if there were shop courses available --
GILRUTH: Yes, I took a lot of shop courses. I did all right in the shop courses.
DEVORKIN: These were woodworking, metal?
GILRUTH: I did all right in school, but I wasn't a star student. I didn't make anybody's honor role.
DEVORKIN: Is this why you ended up in a junior college?
GILRUTH: No, that was because we were poor and I could stay home for those two years, and it was a pretty good junior college. I went two years there and then two years at the University of Minnesota.
DEVORKIN: Was there any question that you'd go to college, at all?
DEVORKIN: Your father was --
GILRUTH: Dedicated to getting his kids through college, completely.
DEVORKIN: Your sister went directly to the university?
GILRUTH: No, she went to the junior college, too.
DEVORKIN: She did, and again this was economics?
GILRUTH: This was economics, right.
DEVORKIN: You talked in your essay here about realizing that math and chemistry and physics were important, that sort of thing, but did you have a concept of what engineering was or what you were heading towards? Did you think that you were going to have to be a scientist in order to do what you wanted to do in designing airplanes? Was that your goal?
GILRUTH: Yes, it was my goal, to design airplanes.
DEVORKIN: What did you think you had to be in order to design an airplane? Be in what position in life?
GILRUTH: I figured that I'd need to know all about materials, and about analyzing structures, to make lightweight structures that were adequately strong, and I needed to know about airflow and about engines, and atmosphere and all that. I had a pretty good idea.
DEVORKIN: Were you aware that the University of Minnesota had an aeronautics department?
GILRUTH: I wasn't, and they didn't until I was ready to go there. I was very fortunate. I think one year before I went to junior college, they started a course in aeronautical engineering. They got a young man named John D. Ackerman, and one or two people to come and start an engineering course in aeronautical engineering.
DEVORKIN: Were you aware of what was going on at MIT at that time?
GILRUTH: No, I don't think I really was, although I was aware of MIT's wind tunnel, some of their airfoil sections. So I was aware that they were making contributions. I knew I couldn't afford to go to MIT.
DEVORKIN: Had you heard the names of von Karman or any of these by that time yet?
GILRUTH: No, I didn't hear about von Karman until I was in college.
DEVORKIN: By this time, as you were in high school, I'd like to know if you did take any summer jobs or have home responsibilities that helped your family along, or were you still pretty much free to explore? What did you do in your summers?
GILRUTH: Well, we were a pretty closely knit family and in the summers my mother and father liked to travel in their old touring car. We had a tent, and my sister and my mother and father and I would put this tent on the running board, and we had a place to carry food, and we'd get in the old car and for a song we could travel all over the United States. My father was a school man, so he had the summer off. We traveled all around the country every year, and so there really wasn't an occasion for me to look for a job. That was good in a way because we went to every state and I got a pretty good geography lesson.
DEVORKIN: There were certainly air races and air shows and things like that taking place in the 1920s. Was the Oshkosh program going at that time?
GILRUTH: I don't know. I don't remember.
DEVORKIN: Did you ever convince your family to go to any of these air races or to an airfield?
GILRUTH: I didn't go to an air race until the National Air Races, and I went to see Roscoe Turner's airplane fly.
DEVORKIN: Was that the one that you built?
GILRUTH: Yes, I helped build.
DEVORKIN: So that was your first contact with that?
GILRUTH: That was my first visit to a National Air Race.
DEVORKIN: Where you lived, were there any industries at all that were building, part of the aeronautics industry, let's say?
GILRUTH: No, there weren't in Duluth, nor Minneapolis. In the days I was in Duluth they had a Wold Chamberlain Field that had not been opened up. When I was in college, my fiancee' was an aviatrix, and we used to fly out of there. In those years I thought I was going to join the Naval Air Corps for a couple of years, and I went over to the Naval Air Station and told them I wanted to ride in one of their airplanes, if somebody would take me up and show me what it would do, and they did.
DEVORKIN: This was when you were in college?
GILRUTH: Yes. And so, I was aware of all those things, but I didn't really follow up as much.
DEVORKIN: Did you continue building models through college?
GILRUTH: No, there was no way I could, where I was. In the summer I built some, when I had ideas that I wanted to follow up on. I'd make a flying model of it to see what I thought of it.
DEVORKIN: Did you continue reading American Boy or Popular Mechanics ?
DEVORKIN: Was this a waning of your interest?
GILRUTH: No, it wasn't, but American Boy was very junior, and I always looked at Popular Mechanics or Popular Science, but it wasn't all that great.
DEVORKIN: What about aviation magazines?
GILRUTH: Yes, I read all the aviation magazines I could get hold of.
DEVORKIN: There was AeroDigest.
GILRUTH: AeroDigest was one of the best ones.
DEVORKIN: Yes. When were you first reading AeroDigest and Aviation Magazine itself? Was it in college?
DEVORKIN: Fine. This is something you could find at college I take it.
GILRUTH: Yes, in the library.
DEVORKIN: But during college -- now, was this still the junior college or at the University of Minnesota, you became president of the chess club?
GILRUTH: That was in junior college.
DEVORKIN: In the junior college. You were also on the tennis team, so you had other interests.
GILRUTH: Yes. I was just very, very interested in tennis, and I always thought that was very lucky that I was because I was not a strong kid. Those years of putting a lot of time on the tennis court really built up my physical resistance, which I needed to do.
DEVORKIN: The bronchitis sort of stayed with you?
GILRUTH: Well, no, it really didn't. I was able to live a pretty normal life. But I think getting that exercise and not being a bookworm was a good thing for me to do in the summer time.
DEVORKIN: But during school, did you turn yourself into a bookworm?
GILRUTH: No, I really didn't. But in Duluth in the winter time, even in Minneapolis, there's not a whole lot you can do in the way of sports. You could ski and all that, but that's not all that easy to do when you're trying to do school.
DEVORKIN: Let's move to University of Minnesota.
COLLINS: After junior college level, did your teachers support your interests in aeronautics at that time or was it something you had to pursue on your own?
GILRUTH: I got to know a young professor there at junior college who became a fast friend of mine. His name was Lewis Rodert, and he was a brand new graduate of the University of Minnesota, and got a job during the Depression teaching at the junior college, and I got to know him very well. We went and worked at NACA together, as a matter of fact.
DEVORKIN: Oh, you did? What was his major, was he an aeronautical engineer?
GILRUTH: Yes, he was an aeronautical engineer and he taught aeronautical engineering at the junior college.
DEVORKIN: So those were your first courses.
GILRUTH: "Principles of Flight" was the name of the course, and Lewis Rodert taught that course. He taught that nasty course on descriptive geometry.
DEVORKIN: Had the aeronautics program at the University of Minnesota already started, and he was a graduate of it?
DEVORKIN: How did you hear about him at the junior college?
GILRUTH: Well, the junior college was pretty new, and they wanted to have as good a curriculum as they could, so they got this fellow and he did a good job.
DEVORKIN: Did you read about it in the course catalogue? Or did somebody tell you?
GILRUTH: No, I found out about it. I was going to go there anyway and take mechanical engineering if there wasn't anything else.
DEVORKIN: But how did you find out particularly about Rodert?
GILRUTH: Well, when I went there and started to matriculate, I found out there was a course and he was going to teach that. I didn't know who Rodert was but I was very pleased.
DEVORKIN: I believe it. Were there any financial problems with your going to University of Minnesota, and burden on your family?
GILRUTH: There was a burden, but they had saved up for it, and they had planned it, and it was no special problem.
DEVORKIN: How did Rodert prepare you for the aeronautical courses that you were going to take at Minnesota?
GILRUTH: He had the right book called PRINCIPLES OF FLIGHT.3 No, that's the one I had in the junior year by Stalker. That was a good course. I still have the book. You can look it up.
GILRUTH: Rodert was a good teacher. He was a good disciplinarian. There were only, I think, three of us that were taking the course. He just went right along from one quarter to the next quarter. He didn't have to repeat the first quarter because there was just one class going through.
DEVORKIN: Did he build up any kind of laboratory facilities, little wind tunnels?
DEVORKIN: So this was all a lecture class?
GILRUTH: This was a lecture class.
DEVORKIN: No demonstrations?
GILRUTH: There were no demonstrations.
DEVORKIN: Could you describe how your experiences changed as you moved to the University of Minnesota itself?
GILRUTH: Yes, the University of Minnesota was a pretty tough school, and when you went there they got all the new people together and said, "Half of you are going to be done by the end of the year." It scared everybody. That was pretty near true, too. I had some very good teachers, though. I still remember them. And they had a very good course in theoretical aerodynamics, and they had some very good courses in structures and materials.
DEVORKIN: Were you specifically in an engineering curriculum? Or did you have liberal arts requirements to take care of as well?
GILRUTH: No, I didn't take any course work in liberal arts. It was all engineering. It was mathematics and technical courses.
DEVORKIN: And that's the way you wanted it?
GILRUTH: That's the way I wanted it.
DEVORKIN: All right. You state that you went into a fraternity also.
DEVORKIN: What made you do this?
GILRUTH: It was a dumb thing I did.
DEVORKIN: I did the same thing myself, just as dumb I'm sure. But how were you drawn into it, which one was it?
GILRUTH: It was an engineering group and a lot of my friends that I met when I got to the university were members or were going to be members. So that's the reason I wanted to do it. I wanted to be with those kids. You went through Hell Week, and boy, you couldn't do anything except the things they wanted you to do. It was tough on your schoolwork.
DEVORKIN: Do you remember the insignia?
GILRUTH: Yes, Theta Tau. I think it was a good fraternity. It had been founded at the University of Minnesota many years before.
DEVORKIN: Did this university fraternity, Theta Tau, act or were you aware that it acted as a pipeline for jobs in industry after college?
GILRUTH: We hoped that would be true, but aeronautical engineering was so new that there weren't any brothers that had gone out there and paved the way.
DEVORKIN: But there were other forms of engineering.
GILRUTH: In mining engineering and things like that, they were a help.
DEVORKIN: How were you regarded by the mining engineering students and people like that?
GILRUTH: Well, I knew some of them very well and they respected the fact that there was a new thing coming along.
DEVORKIN: You weren't ridiculed or anything?
DEVORKIN: So you spent two years at the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate.
GILRUTH: As an undergraduate.
DEVORKIN: I'm curious, you had about how many classmates, who were specifically interested in aeronautics with you? I'd like to get some sense of what the roster of courses were. Is there any chance that you have your college records?
GILRUTH: I think so. I have some. There were about 17 people who graduated in my class in aeronautical engineering. I think it was about 16, 17. I still have the list. Of course I couldn't get a job when I graduated. Nobody really could.
DEVORKIN: We'll get to that in a moment, but I'm kind of interested in the students who went through with you, who you can either remember by reputation or personally, and what kinds of courses and direction there was.
GILRUTH: All right, let me tell you first about the courses. There was Theoretical Aerodynamics, which was really a very basic course in classical hydrodynamics, taught by a very good man named Boehnlein. He was a good mathematician, and gave a good course. We had a whole year of that, and also we had a whole year of structural analysis, where there was a holy terror named Wise who thought it was his God given task to make sure that nobody graduated who would design a bum airplane. He flunked most of the class at least once. I was very fortunate, in that I caught his eye because I asked him a question about conformal mapping, which I was interested in, and airfoil theory, and he thought I knew something. I didn't, but he was always nice to me.
DEVORKIN: When you first saw that article by Max Munk and you saw the differential equations, you said aeronautics for you wouldn't be this way. But now of course you're talking about classical hydrodynamics, you're talking about conformal mapping, and you are encountering differential equations.
GILRUTH: That's right.
DEVORKIN: Certainly there was a lot of theory here.
DEVORKIN: How did you see your own future, moving into it as a theoretician, or breaking out of that, and what?
GILRUTH: Well, I didn't think that I had the tools, the mathematics, to do theoretical work, to pioneer in that, but I felt I should know something about it. I was always more of a person that liked experimental research.
DEVORKIN: What about the experimentation that was available to you at Minnesota? Rodert of course only gave a lecture course.
DEVORKIN: Did you have labs?
GILRUTH: We had a wind tunnel.
DEVORKIN: What kind, how big?
GILRUTH: It was four foot.
GILRUTH: 4 x 4. And one summer I ran it for the university, so I got to know something about it.
DEVORKIN: Was that your first wind tunnel experience, or did you ever try to make a wind tunnel yourself?
GILRUTH: I never made a wind tunnel, no.
DEVORKIN: So going back to your model making period, you always tested it straight up, full up, you didn't test airfoils in a little wind tunnel?
GILRUTH: No, I didn't. Most of our labs were structural labs. In those days, the jobs were always stress analysis and drafting of practices of fabrication of structures.
So in our laboratories we learned to rivet, and we learned the problems of making sure you had a good riveted joint, things to look for, inspection, and how you analyzed the structures and so on and so forth. We had a course in how to design an airplane, how you applied the loads and figured out how big the spars had to be, and so forth. It was a very good school for teaching you how you did the routine things you did in an airplane company. It was very good in that, and they tried to teach you how to put the wings together, the best kinds of wings to use and so on. But it was a little bit harder to find the people who really understood that than it was the people who understood structure.
TAPE 2, SIDE 1
DEVORKIN: Dr. Gilruth, you mentioned it was a good school. It seemed to be strong, though, in structures and structural analysis and in aerodynamic analysis, but so far you haven't mentioned anything about the power plants. Was there anyone there who dealt with engines?
GILRUTH: Yes, we had a course in internal combustion engines, given by the mechanical engineering department, and we had good teachers and we had some laboratories where we ran engines, and they had an aircraft engine there, a rotary engine, and it was one of the first ones that were built.
DEVORKIN: What kind was that?
GILRUTH: A Pobjoy. It was an English engine. Lovely little engine.
DEVORKIN: And did you actually work on it directly and test it?
GILRUTH: Yes, ran it and tested it.
DEVORKIN: So when you were given an airplane to design, let's say, part of an airplane to design, the power plant was specified, I take it?
GILRUTH: It usually was, yes.
DEVORKIN: You were designing powered aircraft?
GILRUTH: We had a course where we were supposed to do a very preliminary design of an airplane. We could choose anything we wanted to do.
DEVORKIN: How did you and your 16 classmates work together? Did you study alone or did you study in groups? What was the atmosphere of the student population?
GILRUTH: I think a lot of them liked to get together and study. I came in there after two years in a junior college so I didn't know anybody at first.
DEVORKIN: Most of the others had been there.
GILRUTH: My first quarter there, though, I didn't know anybody and I was staying with my sister in her apartment, and I tended my business and got mostly A's. So from then on, the other kids wanted to study with me, and by that time I was spoiled, I was wanting more fun, and so I almost flunked out in the later quarter. It was kind of sad for them.
MRS. GILRUTH: Sad for you!
DEVORKIN: Sad for you! But you didn't flunk out?
GILRUTH: I didn't flunk, no.
DEVORKIN: What convinced you to quit the fraternity? What did your father think of that? Was there any kind of feedback from him?
GILRUTH: Well, it all happened so fast, it really hadn't got that far that he knew about it. I got the mumps, and I was really very sick. I was told by the university there was no way I could graduate, but I was determined I could and I did. I had a very mixed set of grades. There were some times that I could have been an honor student, and others where I was just hanging on with a couple of D's. No F's -- a couple of D's and some C minuses -- terrible.
DEVORKIN: When you were in your senior year, were there recruiters from various aeronautical companies, industries, coming around? Was there any kind of job placement?
GILRUTH: Well, you see, there should have been, but there weren't because the Great Depression hit the country, and there just weren't any jobs. Nobody from our class got a job in aviation the first year -- all 17.
DEVORKIN: That was June '35 that you graduated?
GILRUTH: June '35, yes.
DEVORKIN: You had a Bachelor of Science in aeronautical engineering. We haven't talked yet about who your classmates were that you feel should be mentioned.
GILRUTH: Right. I could talk about them. Of course, the most important one was the aviatrix that I married a year later. Her name was Jean Barnhill, and her father was a civil engineer that was building a dam out in California at the time. She was a member of the Flying Club and used to compete in cross country races and things like that.
DEVORKIN: Was it a university flying club?
DEVORKIN: Were you in this Flying Club as well?
GILRUTH: No, I wasn't.
DEVORKIN: Why not?
GILRUTH: Well, I was not a flier, and I didn't think that I had time to learn to fly, and I didn't really think that it would do that much for me to be a pilot.
DEVORKIN: That's very fascinating to me. You were certainly interested in aeronautics?
DEVORKIN: Well, first let me ask, among the 17 students -- youand 16 others -- would you say most of them were like you, not interested in being fliers themselves, or were they more like Jean Barnhill?
GILRUTH: There were several who were members of the Flying Club, and some of them who weren't members of the Flying Club, but when they couldn't get jobs, they joined the Naval Air Corps or training group for the Naval Air Corps, and some of them went on from that to become airline pilots. I think there were three or four of the group that did that.
Most of them ended up as working for companies on the West Coast in stress analysis. Some of them rose to vice presidents, not many, one or two, one who became head of structures in a large airplane company.
DEVORKIN: Who was that?
GILRUTH: Fellow named Ray Cochevar. He was a boy from the Iron Range who was a very bright engineer.
DEVORKIN: You seem to, the way that you recall it, be implying that there was something else in it for you, something more fundamental.
GILRUTH: I was more interested in designing an airplane than I was in flying it.
DEVORKIN: What about the department itself? I'm thinking of the philosophy of design. What was it that the department saw itself doing? Making new contributions to the theory of flight, as a basic science? Or simply improving present designs?
GILRUTH: I think they wanted to do a good job of training young engineers to be good aeronautical engineers. The professors also liked to have jobs on the side, in which they would help design airplanes or do something of interest in the field of aeronautics. Barlow, whom I worked for, had some friends and he liked to design airplanes and had been an airplane designer before he came to Minnesota.
DEVORKIN: That was the Roscoe Turner connection and people like that.
GILRUTH: Yes. And Ackerman liked to get in on those kinds of jobs although he was not as experienced as Barlow was, in airplane design.
DEVORKIN: So would you say that the payoff for you, as an aeronautical designer, was intellectual in a way, rather than visceral?
GILRUTH: Yes, it was. I was more interested in really making some marked advances in the design of airplanes and ability of airplanes to fly better than anything else. That was my thing. I wanted to do that.
DEVORKIN: And this wasn't translatable, let's say, to making engineering or theoretical or design advances in any other field of engineering, it was aeronautics, that was the single thing?
GILRUTH: Yes, that's what I wanted to do.
DEVORKIN: So if you had the opportunity to build a better dredger or something for the mine, it didn't interest you at all?
GILRUTH: Oh, it might have interested me some, but I was really interested in doing it for airplanes.
DEVORKIN: Did it seem then that your logical place eventually was to be in industry at that time or to stay in the university?
GILRUTH: I wanted to go to NACA. That's what I wanted to do.
DEVORKIN: All the time?
GILRUTH: All the time I had in my mind that I wanted to go to Langley Field and work in one capacity or another, either in a wind tunnel or in flight research.
DEVORKIN: How much did you know about Langley and about the NACA at that time? Because of course in the early thirties with Munk and with others, the NACA was being criticized for not producing enough new designs.
GILRUTH: Munk did criticize it, but I hadn't really known about his criticism. I knew he was critical about somebody, but he'd never written anything I saw, that said it was the NACA that he was mad at.
DEVORKIN: But there were others.
GILRUTH: I was aware of the fact that we, in our schooling, used NACA reports all the time.
DEVORKIN: You had access to them?
GILRUTH: We had access to NACA reports, and when we studied performance there was a NACA report that told you a good way of doing it. The library had all the NACA reports that had been published, and there were a lot of them, so we knew that they'd done a lot of good work.
DEVORKIN: So it's that kind of work, those reports are what you saw as the type of contribution you could make the best?
GILRUTH: Well, I really wasn't sure just what I could do best, but that was certainly of interest to me and I thought being in the NACA would give me an opportunity that I could make something out of.
DEVORKIN: The other personality I'm thinking of who had criticized the NACA, a little earlier actually, was Frank Tichenor, who wrote in the AERODIGEST. There were often editorials about the politics and criticism that the NACA was subjected to. I guess it was a running debate in AeroDigest and Aviation Magazine. Did you read these essays, and were they part of the discussion that you would have with your colleagues, students, professors?
GILRUTH: No, I don't think so, and I'm not sure there was much of that going on at the time I was going to college.
DEVORKIN: After your initial early contact with the NACA, when you wrote off after reading the Saturday Evening Post article for more important information about airfoils, did you carry on any further personal contacts?
GILRUTH: No, I didn't have any further contact with them, except as I said, when I was in college we had their reports, and so on and so forth. I didn't know anybody who was working there, and I still thought that would be a good place to go and work. I hadn't really thought about how I might go about getting to go there.
DEVORKIN: During the '33, '34, '35 period, the NACA was getting less and less and less funding. Were you aware of that?
GILRUTH: I remember the year I went down there, their budget was 1.37 million dollars.
DEVORKIN: It had just taken a jump. There was a watershed there, and we'll get to it, but in June '35 when you did graduate, did you actually look for jobs, did you apply?
GILRUTH: I certainly did, but there was nobody sent around from the companies.
DEVORKIN: And there was no civil service exam for the NACA at that time.
GILRUTH: There was no civil service exam. That came later in the year.
DEVORKIN: Right, so the opening had not presented itself. You didn't write to anybody at the NACA or anything?
GILRUTH: No, I didn't.
DEVORKIN: So you decided to hang around Minneapolis. Did you have the support of your family, summer jobs? You say you took a lot of odd jobs at that time.
GILRUTH: Well, I don't think they liked it very well. They wanted me to come home, but I really think I did the right thing in staying around the university.
DEVORKIN: Who at the university was your sponsor for the research fellowship in aeronautics that you got, and how did you get that?
GILRUTH: I think by being there, and I had a pretty good scholarship. It wasn't the greatest, but it was not bad.
DEVORKIN: You didn't have a scholarship as an undergraduate?
DEVORKIN: Was it Ackerman or somebody who -- ?
GILRUTH: Ackerman was the one who was head of the department, so he had to be for it.
DEVORKIN: He had this hot air balloon experiment.
GILRUTH: Yes, he had this dumb idea. In those days you had barrage balloons, and he thought, well, what a nice thing to do, just put a big generator down on the ground and pipe the electricity up to the balloon and we'll put a heater in the balloon to heat the air and we won't need to use any helium.
DEVORKIN: Which was quite rare at that time, hard to get.
GILRUTH: Yes, but barrage balloons were used very little except sporadically in World War II. I spoke about a little bit of what I had to do. It was just a drudgery job, and as soon as Piccard came there -- this was before it had been tested -- he said, "That's no good."
DEVORKIN: How did you feel about it?
GILRUTH: It was a job that I got paid for, so I did the best I could with it, but I certainly didn't think it was a good job to be doing. I was not interested in it. I didn't think it was a good thing for the university to do.
DEVORKIN: Well, as the story that you've laid out goes, you were testing it and working on this technique inside of a hangar and he brought in the press to have a demonstration. Had you tested it and showed it to work beforehand?
GILRUTH: No, we hadn't. And I didn't know he was going to bring the press.
DEVORKIN: Isn't that a bit unusual?
GILRUTH: It was very unusual.
DEVORKIN: Did he have this kind of reputation for flying off the handle?
GILRUTH: I didn't know whether he did or not. It was just a dumb thing he did.
DEVORKIN: Even though it didn't work and there was a lot of bad press as a result of it, you remained, you weren't personally criticized?
GILRUTH: No, I wasn't, he was really pretty good. He didn't do anything but say I'd done a lousy job or something. He didn't fire me. And I was so happy that I didn't have to work on that any more. And Piccard in the meantime --
DEVORKIN: Was Piccard there?
GILRUTH: Piccard came just about at the tail end of this, and he said it was no good, no future.
DEVORKIN: Yes, I can believe it. Had you matriculated as a graduate student as a result of this research fellowship?
GILRUTH: Yes, I had to. That was part of the deal, you had to be working toward an advanced degree.
DEVORKIN: And this something you certainly didn't resist. There was a graduate program?
DEVORKIN: How many of the 16 or 17 students went on into graduate program with you then.
GILRUTH: Well, I think there were three of us.
DEVORKIN: Very few.
DEVORKIN: Was that because they just didn't accept very many?
GILRUTH: I think so.
DEVORKIN: How was aeronautics regarded by the rest of the university, especially after this hot air balloon business?
GILRUTH: I think the professors thought that Ackerman was a promoter, and not highly thought of. But the people that took the aeronautical engineering, in the years that followed, they did well. They did well in industry. When there were jobs, they were able to get jobs.
DEVORKIN: There were physicists there like Al Neier and others. Did you have any contact with the physics department?
GILRUTH: My sister married a physicist, graduate of Minnesota, who went to work for Dow Chemical.
DEVORKIN: But did you know any of the physicists yourself and have any sense of what their regard was for aeronautics?
GILRUTH: For my graduate thesis, I had a Professor Buchta, who was a physics professor and my advisor. He was on my thesis committee, and one of the guys that gave the final tests and orals, before I got my master's degree.
DEVORKIN: Did students in the engineering course curriculum have, in the graduate school at least, always an examiner from physics or chemistry or whatever area was relevant?
DEVORKIN: Outside the engineering schools?
DEVORKIN: Did the professors in engineering ever grouse about this?
GILRUTH: I don't think so.
DEVORKIN: I'm interested if you had any contact with Al Neier, because he founded the balloon group after World War II in cosmic ray ballooning. He was one of the drivers of it. He didn't do it himself but he brought in a lot of younger people, and I was just curious if you knew him.
GILRUTH: I don't remember that. But Piccard stayed around there for many years.
DEVORKIN: Oh yes. After this you said you went into structures and metallurgy, particularly metallurgy. Were all the courses within the engineering department, or were you taking courses in chemistry and physics as well at the graduate level?
GILRUTH: The courses that I took were taught in the engineering department. I took a course in advanced theory of functions from Professor Boehnlein, who had been my old aerodynamics teacher, and a course in metalography from the College of Mines, which is where most of the metallurgists were.
DEVORKIN: What kind of testing was done there? Were there stress tests and that sort of thing, or did you actually have any vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopic studies of surfaces?
GILRUTH: No, actually what we did was study the properties of materials and the effects of heat treatments, corrosion, and how you did things like that. They were practical, more or less, advanced practical courses on how you made things durable and strong.
DEVORKIN: Did you have a particular advisor at this time?
GILRUTH: Yes, he was a man from the College of Mines named Dowdell. He was a very senior, highly thought of man in the metallurgy business.
DEVORKIN: Did you have a choice of this particular curriculum, of going into metallurgy, was this your choice?
GILRUTH: It was my choice. I thought that it would be very important. It was one of the best things I did. You always have problems with materials. When I was running the space program, materials were always the thing that you have trouble with, and it did me so much good to have this background training.
DEVORKIN: Of course you didn't know you were going into the space program at the time.
GILRUTH: No, but flying machines always had problems. They are highly stressed complex structures. They have to be very light and have to have low margins of safety.
DEVORKIN: When you were a graduate student, what kinds of airplanes did you feel were the cutting edge, that you wanted to improve on or make better? Was is speed, endurance, range? What were you after?
GILRUTH: Well, I'll tell you, that's a very good question because I wrote a thesis on the one thing that I was interested in, and that was putting the propellers on the wing tips and rotating them opposite to the tip vortex, and thereby increasing the effect of aspect ratio. I did my thesis on that. I built a wind tunnel model and tested it in that four foot wind tunnel. I also did a theoretical analysis of the effect that I thought that we would get. I remember my advisor was Ackerman, and he said, "You are taking on too big a job. It's a very tough thing to do. Just making the model is going to be a hard thing, and you've got to test it and all."
He was right, but I was so interested in it that I got it all done and wrote a pretty good thesis. I was able to get a theory that bore out the testing. I thought it was great, but the problem was that the effect wasn't all that great, so it wasn't worth making an airplane that way, although some people said try to do it.
DEVORKIN: We're talking about a period between June of '35 and December of '36 when you got your master's degree. During those 18 months, a lot happened.
DEVORKIN: Piccard came in the spring, and you were working on your thesis. I think there's an awful lot to talk about there.
DEVORKIN: I would like to know how you feel about it. We can go on with that now, but it's now about 3:30 or so, we've been going for about two hours, one and three quarter hours anyway, would you like to go on, take a break, or?
GILRUTH: What do you think?
MRS. GILRUTH: I think it's up to you. I tell you, my husband has just had one series of medical problems after another, now he has shingles!
DEVORKIN: Oh my. Well, this will be the end of this first interview session. When we reconvene we'll talk about that 18 months and about the effect of Jean Piccard on your thinking, on your career, and then we'll move on to your early NACA years.
GILRUTH: And don't forget, Jeannette Piccard. She was a very important part of it!
DEVORKIN: Absolutely. I would like to also repeat that we'd be very interested in your growing awareness of, even before the NACA, what the problems were of the position of the United States in aviation; how it seemed to be slipping through the thirties, and if you were aware of it, and what you would hope your personal contribution was to change it and turn it around.
One thing I would like to ask you before you leave, because this wouldn't be too long, your grandfather on your father's side was a Methodist minister?
DEVORKIN: So I can assume your family was Methodist. Were you practicing strongly?
GILRUTH: My father told me that he prayed four hours a day on his knees when he was a boy, and he said, "Son, you're going to make up your own mind what you do about church. You can go to Sunday School, I'd be glad to have you go, but if you don't want to go you don't have to. And I decided I didn't want to. I went a little bit. I went a few times, mostly if it was something I was really interested in, but I didn't have to go, so I just really only went occasionally.
DEVORKIN: Was it the same with your sister?
GILRUTH: I think so, yes.
DEVORKIN: So this was a purely personal choice and you took that, so religion didn't play a big part in your life.
GILRUTH: I've always been religious. I've always believed in Christ and Christianity, but I didn't always believe in the social part of it. It seems to me that the kids who went to Sunday School mostly did it because all the other kids did, and they went there and they didn't really do much about worshipping God when they got there. I really was very open minded about it, and I don't feel sorry for the way I did it.
DEVORKIN: And your family politics, how would you typify the politics of your father and your mother and your politics?
GILRUTH: My father was generally for the underdog, and I remember he voted for Al Smith. That didn't mean that he was Catholic. He was certainly not. But he liked Catholics. He was a good school man and all the children that went to his school were equally welcome and equally wonderful. But he just had so much religion from his father that he said, "I just can't condone it."
DEVORKIN: Thank you very much for this first session.
MRS. GILRUTH: You did bring some things, some papers and all, that you said they might like to take a look at.
GILRUTH: Let me see, this is the thing that you have, the thing that we sent.
DEVORKIN: That's the essay on your early life, before going to
NACA, but now you have others that you would like us to look at?
GILRUTH: I don't know if you have that thing.
DEVORKIN: "Memoir, from Wallops Island to Mercury, 1945-1958",Dr. Robert R. Gilruth.4 I haven't seen this. So I'm not going to give it back to you. Is this a copy for us?
GILRUTH: Yes, I have some other copies.
DEVORKIN: This is marvelous.
MRS. GILRUTH: We just mentioned that we have several papers -- I don't know if you want them all or not, or whether you'd rather wait until there's something in particular....
DEVORKIN: I certainly would like to have them now, so that we can prepare. Then the next meeting I think should be at your house so that we can look at more of your papers. Good.
GILRUTH: Here is a draft of one of the most important things I ever did, and it's one of the things that's least known about me, this wingflow technique that I invented for finding out what happened when you went through the speed of sound.
DEVORKIN: "Draft Resume and Analysis of NACA Wingflow Tests, Robert R. Gilruth "5 This looks like an old style photographic reproduction.
DEVORKIN: Is this the only copy you have?
GILRUTH: No, I have another. It was made Top Secret as soon as my boss in Washington saw it, and so it wasn't released for a while.
DEVORKIN: When was it written?
GILRUTH: I think the time when it was conceived was '44.
DEVORKIN: July, '44. This is post-'45, though, because I see dates of May 1945. So you must have written it after that time, certainly.
GILRUTH: Let me see, I wrote it for a conference in 1947 in London, and it was only published by the Royal Aeronautical Society.
DEVORKIN: So you're giving us the draft and the published version?
GILRUTH: No, I've got to keep one of them.
DEVORKIN: We certainly will copy any of these things.
GILRUTH: Why don't you, I'd like to have one of those, I'd like to have that one back because that's the only one I have. I don't have the original, I never subscribed to those things that the British publish.
DEVORKIN: The first thing that we'll do is take the metal paper clip off and put a plastic one on there , xerox it and send it back to you.
GILRUTH: That's great.
DEVORKIN: These are the kinds of things that will certainly help us prepare a lot.
MRS. GILRUTH: If there are any of those other things, like a conference after the Apollo-Soyuz meetings in Russia -- you want them now, or?
GILRUTH: I don't have that with me, dear, no.
DEVORKIN: What we're most interested in now would be the NACA years and especially the years '37 through '46, because those are the years we know the least about.
GILRUTH: Well, let me see, these are all things that you must have, NACA reports that I wrote, requirements for flying qualities of airplanes.
DEVORKIN: I don't know if we have your curriculum vita, your resume'. But let me take down the numbers so that we can retrieve them. Report 755, "Requirements for Satisfactory Flying Qualities in Airplanes"6 by Robert Gilruth, 1943. Report 711, "Analysis and Prediction of Longitudinal Stability of Airplanes", by Gilruth and White, 1941.7 Report 715, "Lateral Control Required for Satisfactory Flying Qualities, based on Flight Tests of Numerous Airplanes", Gilruth and Turner, 1941.8
Could we actually retain these now and then bring them back to you?
DEVORKIN: I know that we can go to NASA and get copies, but these would help us a lot.
This is the NACA Confidential Bulletin L4H14, "Analysis of Vertical Tailoads and Rolling Pullout Maneuvers", Robert Gilruth, August 1944, a wartime report.9 Then Report No. 778, "Technical Notes, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Notes on the Stalling of Vertical Tail Surfaces and on Fin Design", F.L. Thompson and Robert Gilruth, Washington, 1940.10 These will help us certainly get to your other publications.
GILRUTH: There's at least one story that goes with every one of those things.
DEVORKIN: Good, I'm sure there is. This is all prior to Wallops? This is all work you did in Hampton?
GILRUTH: Yes. Now, this is a Wright Brothers Lecture I gave at one time.
DEVORKIN: This is "To the Moon and Beyond", the Aeronautical Journal, Volume 75, January 1971, No. 721.11 Did we get a vita from you? If we have all these listed that would be very nice.
GILRUTH: I don't have a vita, I don't think.
DEVORKIN: We'll have to construct one then with you.
GILRUTH: I don't think I have an up to date one, I really don't.
DEVORKIN: We don't need an up to date one, but any one that was constructed in the sixties or seventies.
GILRUTH: I'll see what I have. There are some other old things here. "To the Moon and Beyond," that's a draft. This is one that never saw the light of day.
DEVORKIN: Well, that's even more interesting. Just because it didn't see the light of day doesn't mean that we would not be interested in talking to you about what brought you to writing it.
GILRUTH: Would you copy it and give me a copy when you come back?
DEVORKIN: This is entitled "To the Moon and Beyond". It starts out "Introduction at 3:29 PM" that's just to identify it. This never saw the light of day. We'll have to ask you why when the time comes.
GILRUTH: All right.
DEVORKIN: Good. I notice other things. You have a chronology on that graph paper.
DEVORKIN: How far does that chronology go?
GILRUTH: Just up to where I start the space program.
DEVORKIN: Well, I think that would help us. We'll xerox that right now and give it back to you.
MRS. GILRUTH: Would you care to set a time now or is it better for you if we wait?
DEVORKIN: Could we wait? I'll talk with Lynn. We'll prepare our schedules and prepare to come down to see you. I think we should at least go 50-50 on this.
MRS. GILRUTH: That's very nice.
DEVORKIN: But if you find yourself coming to town, definitely for other reasons, by all means we will interview at that time.
MRS. GILRUTH: Yes, the last time we came was because of the Shuttle crisis, we wanted to come and meet with some of the NASA people.
MRS. GILRUTH: So that seems to be bringing us a little more than we usually come. I think of you call us, then if at the time you call, something has come up --
DEVORKIN: Have you talked to anyone about the Shuttle explosion on January 28th, on record, on tape?
DEVORKIN: Do you have feelings about it that you'd like to talk to us about later, whenever?
GILRUTH: I certainly have talked with people about it. I told them that I wished they'd quit trying to find out who to blame, and fix it. Get going, get flying again. But I guess that's too practical right now, with what they're doing.
DEVORKIN: How do you feel about the Rogers Commission, what they're doing?
GILRUTH: I think that that's all right, but I really think that NASA is at fault in not making a major effort to get going and find out how to fix it and get the fix going.
DEVORKIN: Is this before the crash or after the crash?
GILRUTH: Well, find out why the booster failed, and get it fixed so they can get back into flight.
DEVORKIN: You don't see any progress thus far along that line?
GILRUTH: I'd say they're studying that, but it's not that, I don't think it's that big a problem to fix.
DEVORKIN: Well, maybe as things progress we can talk about it. Certainly if you have a feeling that you want to put on a personal record, personal commentary, we're very interested.
GILRUTH: I've talked with some of the boys. In fact, John Young came down and talked to me.
DEVORKIN: John Young came down to see you?
DEVORKIN: Why was that?
GILRUTH: Well, he was just so upset about the fact that this happened, and he thought that it shouldn't have happened. He thought that they were trying to push the flights, the schedule, too hard and weren't taking adequate care of the problems. And I really can't help, where I am now.
DEVORKIN: Was he asking you to help?
GILRUTH: No, he didn't ask me -- he wanted to talk to somebody who had been there before. We, SCI, of course, went through the Apollo Fire, and that was a much harder one to justify to the press and the public than this one.
DEVORKIN: To justify?
GILRUTH: Well, yes. Why in the world would you have a fire and kill three men when you're just practicing a mission on the ground? It's almost impossible to say, well, how in the world could you do that? This one is much more understandable. But it's been a long time now. It's been a long time since thatblew.
DEVORKIN: Almost two months.
GILRUTH: Yes, and they still haven't got a schedule. They haven't really made any real progress in getting things going again.
DEVORKIN: Why don't we stop, unless you want to go on. I don't want to press you at this point.
GILRUTH: No, I'd just as soon not. There's really nothing good I can do right now about that.
MRS. GILRUTH: He's frustrated because he doesn't feel that there is anything that he can do.
DEVORKIN: We all feel that way, especially you.
MRS. GILRUTH: Actually John Young was feeling that way also, you know. He felt terribly frustrated.
DEVORKIN: John Young was feeling frustration?
GILRUTH: You bet.
DEVORKIN: Well, thank you very much. Thank you.
1 Dr. Robert R. Gilruth, "The Very Early Years," GWS Oral History Project, working history files, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC
2 Saturday Evening Post
3 Edward A. Stalker, Principles of Flight (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1931).
4 Dr. Robert Gilruth, From Wallops Island to Mercury, 1945-1958: GWS Oral History Project, working history files, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.
5 Robert Gilruth, "Resume' and Analysis of NACA Wing-Flow Test" The Royal Aeronautical Society, 1947, GWS Oral History Project, working history files, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.
6 Robert Gilruth, Report 755, "Requirements for Satisfactory Flying Qualities in Airplanes," 1943, GWS Oral History Project, working history files, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.
7 Robert Gilruth and Maurice D. White, Report 711, "Analysis and Prediction of Longitudinal Stability of Airplanes," 1941, GWS Oral History Project, working history files, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.
8 Robert Gilruth and W.N. Turner, Report 715, "Lateral Control Required for Satisfactory Flying Qualities Based on Flight Tests of Numerous Airplanes," 1941, GWS Oral History Project, working files, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC .
9 Robert Gilruth, NACA Confidential Bulletin LAH14, "Analysis of Vertical TailLoads and Rolling Pullout Maneuvers," 1944, GWS Oral History Project, working History files, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.
10 Robert Gilruth and F.L. Thompson, Report 778, Technical Notes National Advisory Committee for Aeroautics, "Notes on the Stalling of Vertical Tail Surfaces and on Fin Desing," 1940 GWS Oral History Project, working history files, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.
11 Robert Gilruth, "To The Moon and Beyond," The Aeronautical Journal, Vol 75, Wright Brother's Lecture, January 1971, no. 721, GWS Oral History Project, working history files, National Air and Space Museum, Washignton, DC.