EDITOR’S NOTE: Week four of our series on General Electric’s 125th anniversary profiles Rudy Dehn, a 40-year engineer with the company who helped develop the microwave oven.
Rudy Dehn tried a lot of different cake in the 1960s, and none of it, except that made by his wife, Elizabeth, was any good.
A New Jersey native who spent 40 years as an engineer with the General Electric Co. before retiring in 1982, Dehn played a key role in the company’s development of the microwave oven. Now 97 and still volunteering at miSci once a week, Dehn remembers his work on the microwave like it was yesterday.
And while most of the story is one of creativity and collaboration, there were plenty of mistakes and missteps.
“You wouldn’t believe how many boxes of cake mix I went through,” said Dehn during a conversation at miSci recently. “You’d put the batter in our cavity and turn on the microwave, and the cake would be burned in one place and raw in another. We stumbled around for a while, but we kept working at it. I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to work with the people down there. We also got help from two guys at Stanford University, and eventually we got a pretty good operating microwave oven.”
The idea of cooking cake with a microwave was never successful, and like many inventions, what is today a commonplace appliance was born from something seemingly unrelated, at least to the non-engineering mind.
“The ships for our lend-lease program supporting the British were being sunk by the Germans because the low-frequency radar we had didn’t have enough resolution to see the conning towers of submarines,” explained Dehn. “But the British developed microwave radar and they could see the conning towers.”
So Dehn, a brand-new GE employee in 1941, headed to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a few special courses and learned all about microwave radar. He returned to Schenectady and shared what he had learned with his GE colleagues, and U.S. radar detection improved dramatically. Still, at that time, no one was thinking about a microwave oven.
“Things moved very rapidly during World War II, but when it was over it was like, ‘Well, now what do you do,’” remembered Dehn. “We had no idea what we were going to do with the technology. But we were a part of a team and you went back to work. GE made its history by having nicely organized teams.”
‘REALLY INTELLIGENT MEN’
Born to hardworking immigrants (his father was German, his mother Austrian), Dehn was 10 when the Great Depression hit. He spent much of his youth mowing lawns, shoveling snow and painting houses to help his parents maintain their home. Valedictorian at his high school in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Dehn went to New Jersey Institute of Technology (then called the Newark School of Engineering) and graduated in 1941. He listened to offers from GE, Westinghouse and RCA, and decided on GE because they made the first firm offer of a job. He moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, to work at GE’s plant there, but three weeks after starting he was transferred to Schenectady.
“Coming to Schenectady was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Dehn, who found a small apartment in Bellevue and would walk down Broadway, through the “subway” and on to the GE plant. He met Schenectady native Elizabeth Turner in 1942, helped create the first Schenectady chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club in 1943, and then married his girlfriend, Elizabeth, in 1945.
When GE’s research and development center relocated to Niskayuna in 1955, Dehn was one of the first engineers to occupy what is now called GE Global Research. There he worked alongside some of GE’s most prominent scientists, including men such as Guy Suits, William Coolidge and Vince Schaefer. Earlier, he had already met Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir, TV pioneer Ernst Alexanderson and physicist Albert W. Hull, who like Dehn, worked with radar and vacuum tubes. And while he never met Charles Steinmetz, who died in 1923, he knew many people who had personally worked with him.
“Obviously, everybody thought Steinmetz was a sharp guy, and he had a reputation for some personality quirks, but lots of people who are creative, like Alexanderson, are quirky,” said Dehn. “I met many smart men, so I can’t just pick one. But Vince Schaefer, Langmuir, Albert Hall, they were all really intelligent men.”
As for his favorite GE president and/or CEO, Dehn puts Charles W. Wilson (1940-50) at the top of his list.
“Wilson was a very nice guy, and did a lot of good things when the camaraderie was really important at GE,” said Dehn. “Then the next guy, [Ralph] Cordiner, changed all that. The camaraderie between departments was shot to hell when he took over.”
Dehn still isn’t sure just how to assess the work of Jack Welch, who steered GE’s ship from 1981 to 2000 and enacted some changes that resulted in a decrease of the workforce.
“He was a hard-driven guy and felt like he had to make some changes,” said Dehn. “I don’t know … the environment changes and a CEO has to react to the environment. Maybe Jack Welch saved the company. Maybe if we had meandered along as we were doing, maybe GE would have been a has-been by now. I don’t know.”
Dehn was a big fan of Coolidge (“he hired me”), and was also inspired by visits to the lab from Willis R. Whitney, the man who headed up the first official research lab at GE.
“Whitney used to come by and say, ‘If I can get one peach out of 13 lemons, I’m happy,’” remembered Dehn. “He would tell us how one good success will pay for the rest of it. He had a great attitude. It was about collaborating with other people. There was no king of the hill. It was much more about being a part of a team.”
Rudy Dehn (right) is presented with a monthly employee award by his supervisor, Jack McAllister, in a General Electric circa-1960 photo at the research center in Niskayuna. (Provided)
John Eshback, 94, worked with Dehn at GE developing the microwave oven.
“I probably met him back in 1950 or ’51, and we were in the same group for a while,” remembered Eshback. “He was a bright guy, very friendly, and very good with electronics. I remember he was very matter-of-fact, and while he didn’t joke around a lot, he was still a very friendly guy. I would say we always had good regard for each other.”
While Dehn retired from GE in 1982 at the age of 63, he’s never stopped keeping busy.
“There’s no secret. I’m just thankful that somebody upstairs is taking care of me,” said Dehn, who lost his wife to cancer in 1990. “I do what I like, I do much of my own cooking — my wife taught me — and I have great neighbors. And my kids who come and visit me off and on.”
Chris Hunter, senior archivist at miSci, has known Dehn for 20 years and says he is a valuable part of the museum’s volunteer force.
“He’s a real go-getter, even at 97, and still very active in his church,” Hunter said of Dehn. “He’s here basically every Thursday, and he works on the inventories of new collections that come in to us. He really is one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.”