My father was an independent inventor and manufacturer, and he had his company on a hill overlooking the farm. He received more than forty patents but rarely made money.
I remember him then when he was in the summer of life. He was self-assured and apparently unaware of the harsher seasons to come. His hair was mostly there but had turned white. He retained his bright eyes. My father, always known to everyone simply as Peter, had given up dressing for effect. In the summer he wore cotton shirts with paint stains and the sleeves cut off. In the winter, he switched to bright-red plaid woolen shirts. His pants for all seasons were basic tan khakis with his pipe stem secured behind his ageless dark leather belt.
His shirt pocket always held several Muffets cereal box separators. These were postcard-sized separators between the layers of round shredded wheat. Whenever he had new product ideas, he’d pull one of these out and make a careful drawing of the design concept. When describing something to me, he would sketch illustrations as he went along.
Sometime in the late 1950s when I was sitting with him in his small company building he said, “My best times were during the Great Depression.” He was reflective, puffing on his pipe, and looking out of his office picture window over his farm fields. “I was just starting out, cars were cheap, and wealthy people were buying my custom-designed furniture. I did special designs for the Rockefellers.”
He went on, “My furniture was modern design with interesting combinations of solid aluminum, brass, and Lucite. My company’s name, Tekton, reflected this design philosophy. My machine shop was in our home on Beacon Hill in Boston and included the South Bend lathe you see over there.”
“Well, why aren’t you making this furniture today?” I asked.
“The depression was the beginning of the end of Old Money. They had many faults, but they understood and were happy to pay for quality and craftsmanship.”
“I think your metal bending machines are great,” I said, trying to be encouraging about his current products made in the name of his company, Curvit Corporation.
“They are,” my father answered, “and I have important patents on them. Nobody seems to know about it, but my steel tubing bending machines were used at Pratt & Whitney to form jet engine parts. Other customers were Chevrolet, Ford, and Chrysler. All of Sears, Roebuck’s baby carriages had parts bent on my machines. But the business took so much time that there was none left for development.”
Then he handed me a brochure of a lawn chair made of aluminum tubing and colorful plastic webbing. He winced. “Now my machines are sold at about cost to manufacturers who produce cheap consumer goods like tubular lawn furniture, and I have no interest in that.”
That was the crux of it. Peter Kilham wanted to make the highest quality products. He had to create works of art that his customers would admire and would make them happy. He had to satisfy himself that he had achieved perfection.
Margie the bookkeeper appeared and asked if there was anything more for her to do. “No,” my father said. “There were no orders today. Save the bills until Monday. Take the mail to the post office and have a nice weekend.” Another slow day. He stood up, knocked out his pipe, and said, “Let’s lock this place up and go home for lunch.”
Home was a fifteen-minute walk across a few hilly fields. It was a hot August day and we walked through tall field grass that needed cutting. We passed an old orchard with wormy apples and a slowly collapsing weather-beaten shed. My ever-present dog Axle, a cross between a German shepherd and a Doberman, trotted along sniffing out mysterious spots of interest.
We went right to the kitchen where mother had lunch on the table. Warmed up leftovers from yesterday’s dinner. “Did you get any orders today?” she asked with some edge in her voice. Silence. “No? Well, I guess I can sell some eggs tomorrow.” If the apocalypse ever came, mother would always have her chickens and eggs.
The kitchen was where mother was her warmest. She always was smiling when cutting up the deep dish apple pie she had just baked. She loved to make her own bread from scratch. It smelled so indescribably good when it was just out of the oven.
Mother had met my father at art school where she was a student and he an instructor. She always admired his art but was much more down to earth about financial matters. She had come from a wealthy western family and really wanted to enjoy a financially comfortable lifestyle. Her father was an inventor with over one hundred patents for oil burners used in home furnaces and other applications. My father came from a prosperous Boston family. His father was a prominent architect and his mother an accomplished artist. Nevertheless, he seemed to care little for the comforts that money brings to life.
“The farm,” as we called it, seemed to be my father’s dream. He had accumulated savings from design projects during the second world war. He bought the land after the war when it was cheap, and he could hire returning veterans at low pay to clear the fields, build fences, and make paths through the woods.
The farm was in Plainville, Massachusetts, between Boston and Providence, Rhode Island. We had eighty acres of woods, ponds, and fields. To keep us busy, we also had a dozen or so sheep, about thirty chickens, and a few horses.
My father thought the farm would be perfect for my mother who loved to ride horses and who enjoyed the country life. My father saw it for himself as a recreation of his idyllic childhood often spent in rural New Hampshire. My mother looked after the chickens and farm animals when she wasn’t working in the town library.
My two sisters, brother, and I grew up in this wondrous outdoor existence. As children on a farm, we knew the totality of creation. We gazed at life in a pond and watched butterflies flapping over the meadows. I thought life is forever and we are happy to the end.
After it was sold, all of the family farm was turned into subdivisions, where people all get up at the same time and head off to Boston and Providence.
Much of my practical education took place at home. My father taught me the use of the metal-working tools in his shop. As I grew up I became skillful in working sheet metal, operating the lathe and milling machine, and making metal products. One of my first creations was a brass fishing lure that I sold to the local fishermen. It worked better than anything else on the market. I was proud of my accomplishment and thus motivated to venture into more evolved and complicated inventions.
Electronics became an obsession for me. I built small radios from mail-order kits and learned basic electronics on my own through trial and error. I began to design my own circuits and build my radio equipment from scratch. I connected to ham radio operators in the United States and many exotic places around the world. As the years passed, I accumulated a collection of strange-looking radio antennas, connected from tree to tree, pole to building, and even as tall towers. When the ionospheric conditions were right, I could talk all day to other ham radio operators all over the world.
After digging deeper into the mysteries of electronics, I decided to study electrical engineering. Among many projects that absorbed my time and energy, I rebuilt a radar set. I worked with an ultrasensitive radio receiver that listened to stars light-years away and I programmed computers. I researched electronics that might at some point assume human intelligence. I managed to cover most of my college costs by writing software for some of my professors, and felt assured that my future would be purposeful and perhaps brilliant.
My days were important to my success, however. My father instilled in me the spirit and basics of product design and entrepreneurship. My projects in electronics gave me a solid technical background. My mother encouraged me to think of other people and how to communicate with them, so I feel my home education was solid and balanced. She also said that I should start thinking about getting out of the small town environment and go to boarding school to prepare for college. I had never thought in those terms.
Despite the apparent utopia of his farm and workshop, my father harbored an inner tension that had his sense of perfection driving him forward while straining against a constant need for approval. I don’t know if mother provided the approval he craved. He remarked to me from time to time, “No one understands me.”
He was looking for perfection in everything he did and he would gladly point out that no one could do better what he did. On the other hand, he was constantly asking me—and I imagine other people—if I thought he was making the best things I had ever seen. You could think of it as a championship golfer constantly asking his caddy if his last drive was the best he had ever seen.
This routine was okay in small doses. It can build up a rapport and professional partnership. But I found it tiring at first and then exasperating.
In our walk back to the shop from the house, my father stopped to point out where a new fence post would be placed. Then he described in detail about the preparation and installation of the post. The diameter of the hole should be a precise ratio to the diameter of the post. He detailed several steps of filling in with large stones of a particular size, then smaller stones, then sand. The conversation wasn’t really about fenceposts or me. I saw it as a statement about him.
My father’s nemesis was the horses. He was constantly making fence gate latches that he intended to be horseproof. With his engineering and machining skills, he would devise latches where various levers and catches had to be actuated in a particular sequence in order to open the gate. Even though he had no fingers, our smartest horse, Harry, always found a way to open any horse-proof gate with his nose.
I was uncomfortable because I, the judge, always knew less about what I was supposed to be judging than did the Perfectionist. My father might say, apropos of nothing, “Lawrence, isn’t this a perfect drawing?” pointing to an India ink on vellum drawing he did of a machine part. A machinist would accept a less artful and perfect drawing in order to machine the part, but if the drawing was part of the process, in my father’s view, it too should be perfect.
I would try to be intelligently responsive, answering, “Well, couldn’t that curved surface have some more shading?”
But he wasn’t listening. He just wanted support for his creative ego.