July 26, 2023
In 1971, the American gear business was far different from today. I am unaware of any modern company with a formal gear cutter’s apprenticeship; at Falk, that was just one of thirty-one apprenticeships on offer. I was a drafting apprentice — perhaps the lowest rung on the training ladder. We were the “nerds” of the apprentice department in those pre-computer days and often got sent in to do odd jobs in various places around the massive facility. As the nerdiest of the group, I was delegated to audit purchase orders, pour beer at the retirees’ picnic, deliver documents around town, assist with advertising photo shoots, and take executives’ cars to be washed. Eventually I learned my way around the plant and served as a tour guide. Falk took gears very seriously in those days. The gear cutters were the top of the pecking order. You could not become a gear cutter’s apprentice until you had completed a four-year machinist’s apprenticeship. An additional three years were needed before you became a journeyman gear cutter capable of setting up and running any gear machine in the shop. This is a far cry from today’s CNC world, but the machines and processes were much less operator-friendly. A slight error in hob sharpening could reduce gear quality from a Q9 to a Q6; the gear cutters were expected to make every gear a great gear. It was a good idea to keep me — the world’s worst machinist — far away from such delicate adjustments. Actually, very few people really understood gears. The company had invested heavily in a mainframe computer, and a small group of engineers and programmers maintained the software that rated the components in our products. A slightly larger group was allowed to submit punched cards to the computer department as input into the programs. Looking back, it had a Wizard of Oz aspect to it that fascinated this particular nerd. I asked lots of questions everywhere I was assigned and eventually got to be one of the people punching those IBM cards. It was a wonderful place to “grow up” in the gear trade, perhaps the last place in America where you could see a gear made completely. Scrap metal was melted in an open hearth furnace, poured into a mold formed by a pattern made on site, machined by skilled craftsmen who had attempted to train you, and assembled into a gearbox you made detail drawings for. A few times I even got to help with the assembly! I’m not sure if the opportunities came my way because of or in spite of my constant questions, but to this day I remain very grateful to all the people who made it possible for me to start my career with such a broad foundation.