“Where Professionals Connect”
Chuck Buchanan: The engineer's engineer
By Mark Martel
Next time you get in a car or truck, thank Chuck. One of his ideas is probably in whatever vehicle you drive today. Besides developing power sliding van doors and automatic windshield wipers, Chuck Buchanan amassed many patents in a wide range of automotive systems. Various sources listed 30, 68 even 95 patents. The latest total turned out much higher. He was perhaps proudest of an invention he never patented—retrofitting a stairway with an elevator to help his mother down stairs.
Chuck worked on the parts of cars that make our driving experiences safer, more convenient and refined. Power windows that know just when to stop, van doors that slide open for overburdened arms yet remain secure against curious children, windshield wipers that dance the rain away without a squeak. Chuck helped make it all more human.
Born two days before Pearl Harbor on Dec 5, 1941, “Chuck” Harry Charles Buchanan grew up in the farm town of Marengo, Illinois, northwest of Chicago. His father Harry Buchanan, Sr. was a feed salesman. Donna Buchanan passed on firm-mindedness to her son, though Chuck could also be more demonstrative. Donna was a “tough nut,” and played catcher with the Rock-Ola Music Maids in the National Girls Baseball League, the rival league to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League later featured in the film A League of Their Own. The film’s lead character played by Geena Davis could have been modeled after Donna Buchanan, while a young boy resembling Chuck appeared in the film as well. Chuck eventually played sports himself and was captain of his high school football team.
A challenging high school math teacher helped Chuck excel in physics, science and math. He tinkered on the farm out of the necessity to keep tractors and trucks running. Many farm boys became engineers for similar reasons. Buchanan built a radio for his parents that he set into their headboard for listening in bed. The dual-purpose interface would reappear in his career. Today his widow Diane shows a kitchen pull-out countertop that Chuck designed to hold a laptop on one side, or flip over to make bread on, which he did often.
Chuck’s grandfather innovated. While working on railroad pylons crossing a river he came up with the idea of using a hose of high-pressure water to excavate holes for pilings. Chuck’s father became a different sort of engineer late in life—a railroad engineer.
When Chuck was about college age he and his father invested in hogs. They lost their shirts when hoof and mouth disease destroyed the livestock. That may be why Chuck graduated the University of Illinois with a General Engineering Degree at the slightly advanced age of 25.
Chuck worked his first engineering job part-time while still in school, developing a telescopic antenna that could be deployed off a railroad track.
As President of the Psi Upsilon fraternity he met Chicagoan Diane Meyer in the Phi Mu sorority. They soon married and in 1966 moved to Dayton, Ohio for his job with the Delco Products Division of General Motors.
At first Chuck worked downtown in the Delco factory building on First Street, today’s Mendelson’s Warehouse. He was part of the group that lunched at the Engineers Club regularly, rubbing elbows with earlier generations of Club members. “He worked for my Grandfather at Delco Products,” notes automotive engineer Steve Smith, who Chuck sponsored for Club membership in 2000.
In 1967 Delco Products moved its engineering to nearby Kettering where Chuck would spend most of his career. The company ownership changed repeatedly. Delco Products was split off and became Delphi, then was sold to the German company ITT, and sold again to the French company Valeo. But Chuck stayed based out of the same desk and office until retirement.
Chuck gained wide experience across the engineering departments, from Windshield Wiper Systems to Engine Cooling Motors, Suspension Systems, and Motors and Compressors. While under the Delco Products banner Chuck was promoted to Staff Engineer, first in Suspensions, then in Windshield Wiper Systems and later in Advanced Wiper and Actuator Engineering.
In 1994 ITT Industries bought the Wipers and Motors Business unit and Chuck was named manager for Advanced System Engineering.
Advanced development typically worked 4-5 years ahead on new vehicles. Chuck found that he liked the more creative work, which included lock motors and electric windows. He built the first variable damping shock absorber in the U.S., which helped pioneer semi-active ride vehicles. As Advanced Development Manager, Chuck worked on a wide range of vehicle technologies including suspension, braking, cooling and more.
It was a small, close-knit group. In a crisis Chuck would stop and say “let’s just think about this for a minute.” His positive attitude was contagious. Chuck and patent attorney Gordon Lewis spoke almost daily about engineering topics. Many like Gordon considered Chuck their best friend.
Chuck mentored many as well. He was a people person who motivated others and drove brainstormers to “get to item 25.” Chuck felt the first 10 ideas were often commonplace, and the next dozen ideas were usually silly or stupid, but eventually something deeper might arise. He also sought to involve and mentor new talent. Against legal advice he sometimes allowed a young engineer to get the credit on a patent. Chuck should have had many more patents.
Peter Zhou worked with Chuck for about 15 years at GM, ITT, and Valeo. “And all the time he was one of my best friends… He helped me a lot at work and at off-work time. He even helped my daughter on teaching her English for a certain time in the evening when my daughter came to the U. S. for just a few months. I do not see other bosses that can not only help his/her subordinates, but also help his/her subordinates’ family members. Chuck is very special.”
Chuck’s mentoring began at home. He inspired his kids to want to do well and please him.
Chuck motivated them to be the best they could, telling them “it’s like you to do well.” Without that, daughter Christine says “I would likely have fallen short of my potential.”
He launched others into projects. When son Kevin’s Chevette died, Chuck got Kevin into the garage and both began with the manual. Once Kevin was off and running Chuck disappeared.
One crash project involved finishing the basement in 4 days, including drywall finishes and wallpaper. Kevin said, “He helped me to be a do-it-yourselfer and save a kaboodle of money and open my imagination to new things.” Kevin Buchanan is now a mechanical engineer turned electrical engineer. Daughter Dr. Christine Weller is a family physician.
According to Peter Zhou, Chuck's style of innovating focused on creating rapid prototypes, doing research and field-testing the resulting inventions.
When car stylists lowered car hoods and enlarged windshields, Chuck made the new designs workable through electric powered cooling and new wiper systems. His back to basics approach re-examined materials, mechanics and manufacturing processes to discover new solutions.
He once brought home a test vehicle with a red laser that stopped the power windows from closing if they sensed a blockage. Or that was the theory. On the second try they pinched wife Diane.
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