On a Personal Note

(About the Author)


It is to satisfy my own curiosity that I gather this information on Hopkin Thomas and the technology in which he was immersed during the period of the American Industrial Revolution. Hopkin Thomas was trained (apprenticed) as an engineer in Wales in the early 1800s and came to this country where he applied his knowledge in a number of fields including the designing of anthracite-burning locomotives and in the production of iron in the blast furnaces of the Lehigh Valley. He was a man who made his mark on  technological developments in this country. He sought neither fame or fortune but gained great satisfaction in his own achievements and those achievements of the people whom he trained.


Clearly Hopkin Thomas had a great aptitude for the technological fields which he pursued. As I  gathered this information I began to realize that Hopkin’s life’s work could be inspirational to youngsters who might consider a career in engineering and science. If young people with similar aptitudes were to  examine Hopkin’s record during their formative years,  they might  sense the satisfaction that they could achieve if they were to pursue such a career. Hence, I have tried to organize this material in a readable fashion - choosing hyper-linked, computer-based archiving methods with which the new generation is so facile. I have included much background material on the methods and machines that were enabling to  the industrial revolution. (I have a fear that as America transitions from an industrial powerhouse to a service-based economy that much of this information will be buried by the sands of time.) If only one technologically-oriented youngster peruses this material and gains some knowledge, I will feel vindicated for pouring so much time into this project.


How does one come to have the aptitude for technological pursuits? The answer, it would seem, is largely in the genes. Hopkin Thomas was my great-great grandfather. I knew nothing of his achievements while I was growing up. However, it was clear to those who were bringing me up, that I was going to pursue a career in science and technology. My first recollection of having an interest in science was one I took over my sister's chemistry set at the tender age of eight or nine. There followed intense interest in Erector sets, model airplanes, electric trains, in any other toys that could be taken apart and put back together.



1947                                                                                  2008

605 4th St., Catasauqua – the third floor was the location of my early ‘laboratories’.



I particularly recall the model airplane years when I invested my entire savings of ten dollars into the purchase, through mail-order, of a model airplane engine. I struggled to get that engine to run, but it never ran for more than 15 seconds. I adjusted mixture ratios and spark advances to no avail. In the midst of that struggling, a relative (a civil engineer)  who knew of my travail, gave me as a gift an Olsen and Rice Class B model airplane engine. I was probably  12 or 13 years old and I thought that I had achieved Nirvana. It ran the first time I cranked the propeller. My thinking at the time then turned to radio-controlled model airplanes but these were beyond my financial reach and I have yet to get a model airplane flying in the air to my satisfaction. Perhaps one of these days at High Meadow....


When I turned 16, I turned my attention to automobiles. Within a year I scraped together $100 and purchased a 1931 Dodge sedan equipped with a 'free-wheeling'  transmission.


My 1931 Dodge


The transmission had a chipped gear which made a clicking sound, so my cousin, Tom Shannahan and I searched the local junk yards for another '31 Dodge, tore the transmission out and replaced the one in my car. Thus began the era of taking cars apart and making improvements. A year later, some friends and I dismantled the engine in the Dodge and then we went to look for parts - piston rings, in particular. You always replaced the piston rings whether the car was consuming oil or not. We could not find them anywhere in Lehigh Valley until someone advised that we go to a decrepit garage in South Bethlehem as they had all kinds of old parts lying around. I still recall when we went to the parts department and asked if they had rings for a ‘31 Dodge -- now this would have been probably in the early 50s. The crusty mechanic spit on the floor and observed that the car was old enough to vote. However, he did indeed return with a box of rings all covered with greasy fingerprints -- he indicated they "ought to work"  on a ‘31 Dodge. After putting the engine back together, except for the fact that oil pressure gauge indicated that there was zero pressure feeding oil to the bearings, the engine ran fine. On summer evenings throughout our college years, we always had someone's engine torn apart.


So I had the genes – but we cannot give all the credit to g-g-grandfather Hopkin. Here is a rundown on my ancestors. (Click here for the genealogy chart.)


Hopkin Thomas (my g-g-grandfather, son of a miller) – Master Mechanic, Beaver Meadow R. R. and the Crane Iron Works.


James Thomas (g-grandfather, son of Hopkin) – Superintendent - Carbon I. W., Parryville, Pa,  Operations manager -  Oxmoor Furnace, Alabama. CEO and co-owner of the Davies and Thomas Iron Foundry in Catasauqua, Pa.


William Weir McKee (grandfather, husband of James’ daughter Ruth) Mining Engineer, principle in the McKee Fuller Co. Car, Wheel and Axle Works, Fullerton, Pa.


John I. McVey (father, husband of Ruth McKee’sdaughter, Ruth) Architectural engineer and bridge designer – Bethlehem Steel Co.



I was destined for a career in engineering and the sciences.


I pursued that course by enrolling in the Mechanical Engineering department at Lehigh University. I thought that would do all right academically as I had good training in physics and mathematics at the local public school in Catasauqua where I grew up. I graduated second in Lehigh’s M. E. class of 1955. My interest were in thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and rotating machinery design.


Packard Lab, Lehigh U. – where students ran steam engines in the ‘50s.


Upon graduation, I was single-minded in that I wanted to get into jet engine design – that was where action was in the early 50’s. I signed on with Pratt & Whitney Aircraft and had a wonderful introduction to gas turbine engine design while working in the combustion group.

The P&W J75 – My first assignment was assisting in the design the screech liner for the afterburner.


I was  also working hard on my golf game after working hours. My career at Pratt was interrupted by a phone call to the effect that I had been awarded a fellowship to pursue a masters degree at Lehigh. My first thought was that if I were  to go back to Lehigh I would  have more time to work on my golf game than I had while working full-time at Pratt, so I accepted. That was a great year – I conducted heat transfer experiments on rotating bodies and thoroughly enjoyed hands-on experimental activity after having performed mostly analytical work while at Pratt. I was exposed to nuclear reactor design, hydrodynamics, experimental stress analysis, and other activities and disciplines which escaped me while I was an undergraduate. I certainly had a love for learning.


After having received my M. S. the following summer, I returned United Aircraft but to the Research Laboratory as opposed to the Pratt & Whitney engine division. After enjoying four more years working on advanced propulsion systems, a friend from the Boston area suggested that I move to Boston and perhaps take some courses at  M. I. T.  I felt that would be of enormous challenge for someone who had been out of school five years. But one day I drove up to meet my friend and, on a lark, we stopped by unannounced at M.I.T.  to see if we could get admitted to the graduate school.


MIT – where Tech Tools are honed.


We went to went to the office of the head of the mechanical engineering department. Our technique was to flirt with the department’s secretary – that worked -  and she finally asked who we were and  what was it that we really wanted. My friend, T. L. Shang,  immediately offered that, “John wants to enroll in the Ph.D. program”.  I nodded my approval. To my surprise the secretary said, “Well, Dr. Rohsenow is in his office right now, so why don’t you go in and see if there's an opportunity for you”. Now I knew of Warren Rohsenow as he was a consultant to United Aircraft – he wrote the book on heat transfer which I used while at the Research Department. My bluff being called, I immediately met with Rohsenow. When I mentioned that I was leaning toward a work-study program, the good Dr.’s eyes grew as big as saucers. You see, Rohsenow ran Dynatech, a technology firm that employed a lot of a M. I. T.  students and graduates.  He had two questions for me. Where did you go to do your undergraduate work and what was your standing in the graduating class. I said, “Lehigh -- I graduated 7th in the engineering school”. He said, "You’re in". 


I understand that being admitted to M. I. T. today is a little different from that. Quite frankly, I really had no intention of going back to school, but “I was in”  - as in “in for it”.


During the next five years of very challenging work,  I was awarded a fellowship from Hertz Foundation that paid much the same as the salary that I was earning at United Aircraft. So I enjoyed the good life.  As I completed my thesis I began to think about what I would be doing with all this knowledge. I had met my future bride, Wendy, and we had a brief courtship which culminated in our marriage in 1965.  My work at M. I. T. was completed in early 1967.


My thesis involved explaining the combustion instabilities generated by hypersonic bodies traveling in detonable gas mixtures


During those latter years at MIT, United Aircraft pursued me vigorously, sending former colleagues who were in the personnel business to wine and dine Wendy and me. They lured us back to United Aircraft where I spent my career  working in high technology fields. We raised two boys in the central Connecticut area, Glastonbury, to be precise. Our older son pleased me very much by attending Lehigh U. in the mid 1980s. Lehigh football games and parents weekends brought us back to the Lehigh Valley area.


It was after one of these activities when I reunited with my second cousin, Newt Bugbee, that I was first introduced to the subject of Hopkin Thomas. Newt asked me what was that I was doing at United Technologies. I said that I was working on attempts to burn fuels in engines - fuels which difficult to burn because of their characteristics. Newt  said "Why that's exactly the activity that our great-great-grandfather pursued more than a hundred years ago. He worked on the problem of burning anthracite coal in steam locomotives.” In those days most locomotives burned wood, which was a plentiful resource. However, the owners of the anthracite coal fields saw the rail transportation industry with its steam locomotives as a valuable customer. They contracted with a Philadelphia locomotive builder to develop such an engine. ‘Stone coal’ as it was called proved to be almost as difficult to burn as real stone. It was Hopkin Thomas that developed the technology that allowed the Beaver Meadow R. R. and the  Hazleton R, R. locomotives to burn anthracite – this occurred almost 30 years prior other engine manufacturers locomotives. Well, I thought, what a coincidence!  That was the beginning of my activities to track the career of Hopkin Thomas. All I knew of him what is that he was trained at the Neath Abbey Iron Works in Wales and he eventually was involved with the Beaver Meadow Mining and Railroad company in northeastern Pennsylvania.


It so happened that the following year, 1996, The American Society of Mechanical Engineers was holding its annual meeting in Birmingham, England. As I was an active member of the Combustion & Fuels Committee, I made it a point to attend these annual meetings. The meeting was to be held in June, and the Exposition Hall was to be holding a flower and garden show at the same time as my conference, so my wife, Wendy, could enjoy viewing petunias while I was viewing equations. When discussing my meeting plans with Alan Eckbreth, my supervisor and my son’s father-in-law, Alan, whose background was laser diagnostics, concluded that the meeting would be a good means of honing his skills in the gas turbine technology area. Alan suggested that we contact Paul Ewart, a professor at Oxford so that we might arrange a get-together. (I had met Paul, also a laser diagnostician, during a sabbatical held at United Technologies a few years prior.)  Paul enthusiastically suggested that we all go to his cottage, Siop Fach, near Newport, a small community on the Irish Sea in southwestern Wales, to do some hiking in the Welsh countryside.


So through this twisted scenario, I, and Wendy, arrived at the homeland of my great-great grandfather. Through another series of coincidences, my sister, Ruth McVey, was to be in London, so she hopped a train and we were all together when I came up with the idea of attempting to locate the remains of the Neath Abbey Ironworks. This venture has been documented in Search for the Neath Abby Ironworks, available in the web edition.  Thus, in 1996, I began the project to record the history of Hopkin Thomas.


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Rev. Nov. 2011