Slip Ring History Series: Charles H. Smith, Slip Ring Pioneer

In 1916 Charles H. Smith published an in-depth article on brush technology (see our earlier article, “Brush Technology In 1916”) while employed by Westinghouse in Pittsburgh as, “Engineer of the Executive Department, and the Nation was my field of operation.” But before achieving that exalted position he was a poor country boy in Georgia. In an autobiography he wrote late in life for a family tree project, he lovingly describes his early education in a one room school house, recalling a classmate who was an ace at marbles and a blond girl who was his nemesis in spelling bees, whose nickname was ‘Cottonhead.’ Smith recalled that his teacher required students to pause as they entered the door and declare, “Bonjour, Madame,” as they entered, and “Bonsoir, Madame,” upon deperture; and that was the only French they learned!

Smith must have been an impressive young man. In 1888 at age 16 he became a messenger for the freight dispatcher of a small railroad. Abruptly and for no apparent reason he was told to pack his bag and begin studies at Auburn in September, 1889. He graduated at age 21 as part of the school’s first Electrical Engineering class. After a satisfactory temp job as an inspector with a Fire Insurance company, he was out of work for a while. Then an Auburn professor pulled some strings, and he was offered a position with Westinghouse in far-away Pittsburgh. After boasting of his good fortune, he reported in to discover his wage was 12 cents an hour and he was expected to work 54 hours a week! He worked and saved for months to buy a new pair of pants. After some time Smith won a raise to 16 cents an hour and became an apprentice to a “selfmade” construction engineer who taught him the importance of workmanship—the ‘extra touch—too often neglected’. After Westinghouse refused his request for 25 cents an hour, he accepted a job as Chief Electrical Inspector at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta ($75/month).

Odd jobs followed until the outbreak of the Spanish American War. Smith applied for a rank of Captain in an engineer regiment. He turned down an offer of 2nd Lieutenant. When asked if he would accept a commission as 1s Lieutenant, he agreed to consider it, and when it was formally offered, he accepted. In short order he was promoted to Captain and shipped out to Cienfuegos, Cuba. The War was already over, but Captain Smith worked on interesting projects there, including rehabilitation of a Spanish Army barracks for US Army use and laying out the camp site opposite Castillo de Jagua for occupation troops. Capt. Smith’s unit was “mustered out” on May 17, 1899, at Fort McPherson, Georgia.

After a few months he rejoined Westinghouse, where he served in engineering posts, including “District Engineer”, in St. Louis and New York City. In 1907 he returned to East Pittsburgh as Engineer of the Executive Department, where he wrote his learned article on brushes in 1916. When America entered World War I, Smith was granted leave to rejoin the Army Engineers. His commission as Major was delayed until January 28, 1918. At the age of 45 he reported to Camp Lee, Virginia, on May 5, 1918, for training. His first wartime assignment was at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he soon was assigned to the 20th Regiment of Engineers, “a skeleton outfit,” and then on to Camp Frement, California. There he selected a camp site for 170 officers and men who were due to arrive within 5 days. He was to have quarters and breakfast ready. He proudly reported that when they arrived two days early, quarters and breakfast were ready. This group was to have trained three new engineering regiments. But the Armistice occurred on November 11th, and the job at hand was mustering out. Smith became Camp Inspector for a 40,000 man troop area, where he quickly transformed the interiors of post buildings to expedite the discharging of men, a process that was “inexcusably slow.” Smith also administered claims by locals for property usage. But this work got interrupted when someone in Washington got him confused with another Smith, and he was abruptly discharged on January 6, 1919. He continued to refer to himself as Major Smith, even in his retirement.

After the War he returned to Westinghouse at East Pittsburgh, where he was again Engineer of the Executive Department, a position he held until he retired in 1938. He served as Director of the Westinghouse Club for twenty years, and he was elected President four times. This organization was both a social club and a technical education institution within Westinghouse.

During World War II Smith was a key manager of the construction of Ravenna Ordnance Plant and the Lake Ontario Ordnance Plant in Lewiston, NY. In July, 1943 Smith rejoined Westinghouse, where he was involved with “salvaging technical talent from the draft” and finally collecting data for a history of Westinghouse’ work during the War. After the War he retired. In his autobiography he complained, “the vicious, inane, and illogical practice of arbitrary retirement has precluded my further employment.”

Charles Smith’s expertise in slip ring brushes was part of a larger life as a practical engineer who took on challenges of many kinds wherever he found himself. Whether it was designing lighting circuits for expositions, establishing encampments on short notice, refurbishing electric locomotives for a mining operation, building ordnance plants to win WW II or leading The Westinghouse Club, Smith was a good man to have on the team.