The Chalk Mark

You’ve probably heard the story in various incarnations. An old Navy chief, an engineer, an auto mechanic – you name it – he’s called in to diagnose a problem with some sort of engine or device. He puts a chalk mark on the machine showing where to make the repair, and sends a bill for $10,000, most of which was for knowing where to put the mark.

I always thought this was an urban legend, it appears that there may be some truth in it, if an article at the Smithsonian is to be believed; obviously no source is above scrutiny, but I know that the Smithsonian does its best to be accurate, factual, and scientific in its reporting, hence I thought it was worth sharing.

Steinmetz

Charles Proteus Steinmetz circa 1915 – Wikipedia

From the Smithsonian Article:

Before long, the greatest scientific minds of the time were traveling to Schenectady to meet with the prolific “little giant”; anecdotal tales of these meetings are still told in engineering classes today. One appeared on the letters page of Life magazine in 1965, after the magazine had printed a story on Steinmetz. Jack B. Scott wrote in to tell of his father’s encounter with the Wizard of Schenectady at Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

Ford, whose electrical engineers couldn’t solve some problems they were having with a gigantic generator, called Steinmetz in to the plant. Upon arriving, Steinmetz rejected all assistance and asked only for a notebook, pencil and cot. According to Scott, Steinmetz listened to the generator and scribbled computations on the notepad for two straight days and nights. On the second night, he asked for a ladder, climbed up the generator and made a chalk mark on its side. Then he told Ford’s skeptical engineers to remove a plate at the mark and replace sixteen windings from the field coil. They did, and the generator performed to perfection.

Henry Ford was thrilled until he got an invoice from General Electric in the amount of $10,000. Ford acknowledged Steinmetz’s success but balked at the figure. He asked for an itemized bill.

Steinmetz, Scott wrote, responded personally to Ford’s request with the following:

Making chalk mark on generator    $1.

Knowing where to make mark         $9,999.

Ford paid the bill.

The story fits well with what is known about Steinmetz, a mercurial genius of engineering. Unless we can get the plans for Professor Waxman’s time machine, there’s no way of verifying the story, but this iteration of it has a ring of truth.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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2 responses to “The Chalk Mark

  1. Plausible. Though they may have left out some test gear usage to sweeten the story a bit.

    But if he can tell that there’s a bunch of dead or miswired field coils, and has a way to walk the machine around at slow speed and see a dip in the output, that can tell him where to put the X. Got to be one (or more) of those dozen.

  2. My only skepticism is that “Steinmetz” sounds like a Jewish name, and although the architect of two of Ford’s factories was also a Jew, Ford was a known, fierce anti-Semite.

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