My greatest role model was a man who was old when I was a young boy.
He was 85 and I was 15.
He was born in 1895. As a toddler his father had taken him to New York City's old Madison Square Garden to see Nikola Tesla demonstrate the world's first remote-controlled machine: a submarine of Tesla's invention that could dive, surface, go port or starboard, and turn on lights in response to commands broadcast from a little radio-box held in Tesla's hand.
Later he became a conductor and motorman on a little interurban electric railroad that ran through my home-town of Glen Rock, New Jersey, then a Marconi wireless operator on a tramp steamer in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1919 he transported a noble White Russian family fleeing the Reds and fell in love with one of their daughters, a shy and beautiful Russian girl.
He became one of the first employees of R.C.A. (he received news of his new employment while at sea by wireless), and eventually went into electrical engineering. He invented a fail-safe railroad signal, the integrated cabinet radio, and other inventions I am still researching. In the 1940s he became concerned about the disappearance of public transit under the influence of gasoline, rubber, and highway interests, and was one of the first to speak up about the health effects of internal combustion engines used en masse.
In the late 1950s or early 1960s (after raising an abandoned mississipi river steamboat from the sunken wreck it had become and restoring it to its former glory - it still runs today and is called The Delta Queen), he started a company to promote an idea dismissed as crazy by many at the time: the electric car. When I came to know this man, he was 87 years old. He would lay down on a couch in his upstairs bedroom and tell me some of his life-experiences. In the mid-1950s he was working with an engineering company, and at his behest they had just installed a new vacuum-tube computer system - one of the old air-conditioned room-sized monsters. He walked into the office of the company's president, sat down, and told him that they would have to throw out the computer system and install a new one. The president just looked at him. "A new invention has just come down the pike," he explained. The President rasped, "So what?" "It's called a transistor ... " One day, in 1980 or 1981, I went down with him to his basement. There on blocks in the musty damp basement was the chassis of an old VW Beetle. The rear engine had been taken out and in the engine compartment were a group of old heavy batteries wired to electric motors between the axles. I looked at this vehicle in wonder. He stood by me, tall and frail. A metal plate was affixed to the rear hood - it had the name of his company and the company motto in small proud sans-serif letters:
QUINBY ELECTRIC CAR COMPANY
IF IT'S NOT IMPROVEMENT, IT'S NOT PROGRESS
He died not long afterwards, while I was away at school. I knew that he was old, but at 15 and 16 it was not real to me that he could die. Today, many years after the day I, nervous and determined, knocked on the big white door and the tall old giant with sparkling eyes opened that door, I remember the lessons I learned from that man. I remember his warm nobility, the relaxed precision, his wisdom and style.
He was my real father.
His name was E. Jay Quinby.
In the pages to follow, I will remember him.