Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Technical Trip Down Memory Lane

On June 2, 1969 I left behind my university days and embarked on a professional career as an Associate Chemist with General Foods Ltd. Research in Cobourg Ontario.

I can remember getting my first Retirement Plan summary with GF and marveling that my normal retirement date would be November 2011. It seemed unreal that one could see 42 years into the future. It’s far less mind-boggling to look back over that number of years today.

The way of life I experienced then is gone physically now. The R&D department in Canada was eliminated in the early 1990s. The mighty GF plant complex in Cobourg closed a couple of years ago. And even GF itself disappeared as an independent company over 20 years ago – merged with Kraft, GF lost its corporate name by 1995. The lovely 60s era lab complex where I learned my trade is now an ambulance building.

Even in places where food company R&D remains in place in Canada, the entire activity has been so changed that one would no longer even recognize the same sort of work in the late 1960s – who did it, how we did it, how we got paid, how we were managed. Maybe it’d be fun to take a little trip down memory lane.

To begin with, food Research was an overwhelming male activity in those days. Out of a 40 person staff we had maybe 5 women, and only 2 would have been considered professional. One was a home economist and the other a pioneering food scientist from UBC. Today the proportion would be 100% reversed.

Most degrees in the lab were in Chemistry, not Food Science and the job titles reflected that fact. Today almost every food R&D professional would be a graduate of a Food Science program at Guelph, Laval, UBC, Manitoba..you get the idea.

We were a paper based department. We wrote our lab notes and product formulations by hand into bound notebooks. Our work was read and witnessed by our peers and supervisors. Our formulations were written to three figure accuracy, then checked and typed by a special formula control department which created a second formula for costing that went to 4 decimal places. We could not sort our formula listing except mentally, we were not directly responsible for ingredient line declaration, and we had only a foggy idea of how much our creation would cost. I cannot imagine how any food technologist could work like this today.

Our communication was mainly by telephone, although nobody had a direct line to the outside. We hand wrote memos which were then typed (and often corrected) by our secretarial staff. If we were in a hurry we had a particularly vile method of writing called a SpeediMemo – three copies, carbon paper. One copy was to keep, two to send, one to get back.

We kept track of our time on cards which we sent to the Research Facilities Supervisor. Each of our projects had a name and number. We got paid once a week by paper check which we had to take to the bank. My first check was around $100 as I recall. My gross pay was close to $130 per week.

We had a 15 minute coffee and /or tea break twice each day. Our coffee was made for us and delivered to the lab by a nice lady. We were supposed to remain at our desks, you see. However the management did not object if we had coffee with co-workers in another lab space as this encouraged “cross-pollination” of ideas.

A typical lab was a large bright room where we had 4-5 desks set up around the walls and the rest of the area consisted of benches and counters where we could weigh, mix ingredients, run tests, etc. Our equipment was unfailingly analog in nature.  Balances and test equipment had moving visual displays or paper recording charts. Even digital results such as colorimeter values were obtained by rotating knobs and matching potentiometer needles. The equipment was specifically designed and built for food application – the Amylograph, Farinograph, Hunter Colorimeter, Texturometer.

There were no computers or calculators in general use. The analytical lab had a strange Friden mechanical calculating machine with knobs, switches and thumbwheels. This could do calculations to some accuracy if you could master its eccentricities. Otherwise you stuck to a slide rule or mental math.

The only computer application I saw in the lab was by an older researcher who used a COBOL database structure to file and retrieve his hundreds of competitive evaluation reports. He knew nothing of computers but he liked the logic of the database.

Our laboratory library had a couple of interesting Information Retrieval systems. One was called the McBee card and was used to find the oldest research reports we had in the company. Some of these went back to the early 1940s. You stuck a long needle through a stack of cards. You then gave the deck a shake and the cards that you might be interested in were notched and fell out.

The McBee system had been replaced by some sort of Termatrex app for more recent reports. With Termatrex you placed a bunch of punched plastic sheets on a light viewer and if the light shone through in the right spot you were getting somewhere. I never figured this system out, and to be honest I never saw anyone else use it effectively either. One of our secretaries was pretty good with Termatrex and she could find things if you really needed it.

One last word about our management structure. It was heavily hierarchical and deep. I figure there were at least 4 levels of management in Research alone and probably another 3 up to the President of GF Canada. This doesn’t include all the lateral supervision we had in formula control and time reporting. It’s really amazing we got anything at all done under such a suffocating system.

In spite of all the strangeness above, it was a great time in my life. I was doing some interesting practical work, I learned a tremendous amount from eager young technical colleagues and the veterans who made up the backbone of the laboratory effort. I have never regretted the 5+ years I spent learning my craft in Cobourg Research. Long may it live in my memory.

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