Interview with Charles Edwin Ellis, Jr. by Janice H. McCue Feb. 15 and April 2, 1981
Mahwah, New Jersey
Q: (I would like to) talk to you about yourself and your years in Mahwah. Would you tell me where and when you were born?
Ellis: I was born in New York City in 1907, May, 1907, on Central Park West at about 92nd Street in a brownstone front. And we didn’t stay in New York very long after that. We left and moved to Yonkers, New York, and the family took me as a baby down to Texas to show me to my grandmother; and then we came back to Yonkers and we stayed in Yonkers until I was about four or five. And then we came over to Suffern, where we had friends; and in addition to the friends in Suffern we had friends in Cragmere here. And we stayed in a rented house — there were three for rent — at the Houvenkopf Conntry Club when we first came to the area, because there was a nine-hole golf course in those days, and my father and mother liked to play golf; and I liked to watch them — not that I had anything to say about it. And we stayed there during the summer. Then during the winter we moved into Tilton’s Boarding House in Suffern, where I was nearly annihilatad by a freight train. I’ve told you about that, and I don’t know whether you want to redo that again or not.
Q: Yes, I would like to hear that story.
Ellis: Okay. We were staying at Tilton’s, and one day I got bored hanging around the boarding house (laughs) and decided to venture out to the front of the yard — remember I was about four at that time — and out on to the main street, which is now Route 59 and across the bridge of the Mahwah River and back up toward what we called then “The Stone Crusher.” It’s now called the quarry, the same thing anyway. And I went up the railroad embankment because I wanted to cross the railroad bridge, which ran behind Tilton’s and could be seen from the boarding house. So I started out between the rails to cross the bridge standing up. And as soon as I got away from the bank, I looked down. Fifty feet below me was the Mahwah River running over rocks, and I got scared, so I dropped down on all fours, but I continued to crawl toward the center of the bridge. And as I was doing that very slowly and very fearfully, somebody came out on the back porch of the Tilton Inn and called me and said, “Come down! Get off of there!” So, being an obedient child, I did so. I turned around and I crawled back to where I’d started and stood up and got out between the rails and stood down on the side of the track; and as I did that, around the bend came a freight train at a good clip, engine first, and went by me. If it hadn’t been for the call from the back porch of Tilton’s Hotel, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story.
Q: That was a great stroke of luck.
Ellis: Yes. That was the beginning of my good luck. Beyond that, I had good luck in my parents, I think.
Q: Could you tell me what your parents’ names are?
Ellis: Yes, my father was named Charles E. Ellis — Charles Edwin Ellis — and he was born in Sewickley , Pennsylvania, and my mother was named Helen Forman; and she was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Q: How did they meet?
Ellis: Well, they both came to New York, like so many people do from the far reaches. My mother came to study art at the Art League; and my father came as a newspaper reporter. He had been raised by the Nevin family of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, who owned the Pittsburgh Press. And he got his first job as a newspaper reporter, I believe, on that newspaper; and he wanted, I guess, to get into the big time, or at least he wanted to expand his horizons, so he came to New York — and they both stayed in the same boarding house. In those days there were boarding houses all over New York, you know, and that was a good way to meet, I guess. It’s most inevitable that people would meet in a boarding house. They did, and they got married in 1905.
Q: And did your father continue as a journalist?.
Ellis: No, he got into Wall Street, and he became a bond salesman. That is to say, he became an entrepreneur to raise money for ventures; and I remember he said he sold bonds. Well, of course, bonds would be a way of raising money. And I didn’t understand what a bond was, and I thought it was “barns. And for several years as a young boy I thought my father sold barns, but he didn’t.
He at one time took a whole party, including a United States Senator and other notables, in a special train down to Arizona to examine a mine down there; and I think that’s where he collected these two Indian rugs that you see on the floor here, one here and one there. And that was one of his early adventures, which didn’t pan out. Apparently they couldn’t raise the money or the mine didn’t have anything in it — I’m not sure which — but anyhow they had plenty of problems, and he went on to other things after that.
Q: Did your mother continue with her art
Ellis: No. You see, I was born in 1907, so she became, of course, a housewife and a mother, and that’s all she ever did in her life after that, except for her basic talents. For example, she designed this house and had an architect draw up the specifications for it.
Q: It’s a beautiful house.
Ellis: Yes, it is.
Q: I love the French doors.
Ellis: Yes, it’s one of the nicest houses up here. She liked sun before the sun was fashionable.
Q: There are lots of windows.
Ellis: Yes, I wish all the south side of this house was glass so we could get more of that good solar heat.
Q: You’d have a very modern home then.
Ellis: Yes, well…
Q: It’s almost true with this glass.
Ellis: Well, we do get some. Yes, we do have two French doors there.
Q: With the exception of the fireplace.
Ellis: Once in a while I think of how to grab more sun from that direction. But she was an artist, and she wrote poetry, and she wrote plays, and she was published in a very minor way; and she was a water colorist. She played the piano well. She composed music, to her own satisfaction at least. This grand piano you see there was of course hers. Nobody in the family plays it now. But she was really a talented person.
Q: It certainly sounds that way.
Ellis: And a a favorite granddaughter of Edward Forman, my great grandfather, who in one of his letters, which I have in the files, said, “I expect that little Helen is going to make a mark in the world,” which I think she did in her own way.
Q: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
Ellis: I had two sisters, younger than I: Elizabeth, the oldest of the two sisters, and Rosalmonde, the youngest. Rosalmonde is no longer with us, and my sister and I live here in this house today.
Q: And what was your childhood like? What were your interests?
Ellis: Well, in the beginning, of course, what I remember, that is, say about four or five years old, I enjoyed the ambiance of the Houvenkopf Golf club. I enjoyed the outdoors. They had tennis courts there, and there was quite a social life, which of course I never participated in at that age. And there weren’t many boys and girls around to play with. So I had the opportunity of playing with some of the mountain people so-called, who lived along the lower foot of the mountain at that time.
I remember that in the servants quarters of the Houvenkopf Club I witnessed my first violence. I remember there was a fight between two people, two men, and I was quickly shooed out the door, because one guy hit the other, and I remember the crack of one of his teeth hitting the wall right after that, and immediately after that I was ejected from the premises and knew no more about it. It was a shocking kid thing for a child that age, but I didn’t understand what was going on; so it wasn’t traumatic at all.
Q: Did you go to elementary school in Suffern or in Mahwah?
Ellis: No. I went to elementary school in Mahwah because after the two seasons at the Houyenkopf Club and the one winter at Tilton’s Boardiñg House, we rented a house in Mahwah, which is now known as the Zisgen House on Winter Street, and we lived there beginning in 1913, I believe. And while we were there my grandmother died, who lived in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and we stayed there about a year and a half or two years until this house was started. Mother and Father got this house started in 1914 just as the First World War was starting, and it was finished in 1915, and we moved in. I’ve had this domicile here ever since except on one occasions when the house was rented. We used to go to the beach in summer, and my mother would rent the house for three months in the summer. And also when the First World War started, my father, who had been a captain or had been an officer — let me say that — in the Spanish American War, went back into the army. He had reserve status, of course. So he went back in the army and was made a major — commissioned a major — in the army, the Ordnance Corp. And he was eventually the commanding officer of the largest shell-loading plant in the world down at Amatol Arsenal near Hammonton, New Jersey. That’s in 1918.
Well, the war ended in 1918, November — Armistice Day — and he got out of the army about a year later. He wasn’t a regular army man — in other words, not West Point — so they cut the army way back, and he was discharged from the military service.
While he was in the army, Mahwah, which depended on coal for its energy, ran short of coal. Albert Winter, who was the local coal merchant, just simply couldn’t get any. And our house was out of coal, and there were several others, and the school was on the verge of running out of coal. So through his army connections, my father was able to get two car loads of 50 tons each of coal delivered to Mahwah to Albert Winters’s siding down there, and that relieved the shortage and saved the day.
Q: I’m sure the community was very happy with that.
Ellis: Yes, and so were we because up until that happened, we had a man down in the cellar splitting elm tree logs to make the furnace go; and the marks of the ax are still in the cement floor of the house.
Q: How large a community was Cragmere then and what type of a community was it?
Ellis: Well, it was the first planned real estate development along the east coast except Tuxedo, and it was planned as a community for people who wanted to get out of the city and have a place in the country or to move out and live in the country, and the real estate brochures that a Mr. Bugg, who was hired as the sales manager and principal mucky-muck, wrote about owning, on a quarter of an acre, a house and a barn, an orchard, a vegetable garden and a pony and a cart; all on a quarter of an acre or a half an acre. He was far-seeing. He and the people that owned the property working together set up rules for the building of houses and the building of fences, prohibiting wooden fences, for example, and forbidding flat-roofed houses. All the telephone poles or electric light poles in that first case had to be painted green, and they were. I remember them as a boy, seeing them painted green. I wondered why. They’re all gone now. And that was the beginning of the Cragmere community, which had the only paved roads in this area except the Havemeyer Road, which is now the Valley Road. That’s the road that George Washington went up and down so many times. It was dirt in those days. But Havemeyer, as soon as tarvia or asphalt became available, he had that road paved so that he could get from his house to the railroad station, because he was a commuter. That was important to him; winter or summer he had to get to New York when he was out here, and he did; and he paved that road, and that was the first one.
I’ve heard the story of the local bicyclists in particular, back in the days when they had bicycles with one big wheel in front and one little wheel in the back. They used to race along the Havemeyer Road. This is before my time, but I’ve heard the story told by a man who actually did the racing. On Sundays they’d all get together and they’d come down to the Havemeyer Road, the only non-dirt road around, and race on it.
Q: As a teenager what were your hobbies?
Ellis: Well, early in my career, at the age of six when we moved to the Zisgen House, there was an outdoor pumphouse which supplied water to a tank inside the attic of the Zisgen House called the Johnny Winter House when we rented it, and that pump, which consisted of a big wheel on a frame and something that went up and down in the well (of course, it was the pump rod but I didn’t know it at the ripe old age of five), was driven by an electric motor, a little humming motor over in the corner, which was connected to the big pump with the big wheel on it by a flat leather belt. And on the motor they had a little pulley, a small diameter pulley, and on of course the pump they had the big wheel. And the little pulley went much faster than the big pulley, and I couldn’t figure out how that could be. But anyway the motor fascinated me, and that was the beginning of my interest in electricity.
Q: And where did that lead you?
Ellis; When I was 15, in 1922, 2 got an amateur radio operator’s license and had a radio transmitter with call letters 2CXV, at our house. Well, to bring it down to the 1940’s and 50’s, it led me to the invention of the Spiradyne Electric Motor.
Q: Tell me what that is.
Ellis: Which is a story all by itself (chuckles). Well, that’s an alternating current squirrel-cage induction motor, which can be made to vary its speed, adjustable speed induction motor. And I have a number of patents dealing with that subject. But to get into the detail of it would be highly technical. Anyway…
Q: Which I wouldn’t understand at all.
Ellis: No, most people wouldn’t.
Q: Were you working for a concern when you did this or were you on your own.
Ellis: No, I was a free-lance consultant, consulting engineer. I had an office in New York on 40th Street opposite the library just off Fifth Avenue, and I was doing two things at once. One was working on the Spiradyne, and the other was developing the ship and shore cargo loading system for a Detroit man who wanted to automate the loading of ships, which at that time took many days and tied up the ship while the cargo was laboriously lifted up off the pier and put in stings and dropped down into the hold and packed away. He wanted to automate that, and we invented a sort of a railroad which would go in through the side of the ship carrying something like 20 tons at a clip on pallets. Well, that went on for two or three years, and eventually the trailer truck business took over, and now today they ship complete trailers in one unit. What we had proposed required rails and pallets separately, special pallets to pull it up. Our system would have permitted the shipping of more tonnage per vessel than at present because it was packed in tighter, whereas the present scheme using trailers, you lose the cubic space where the wheels are underneath. Those wheels kill the space underneath the trailer body. However, because you don’t have to transfer the cargo from the trailer to a railroad system — miniature railroad system — it’s more economical even to waste that space; and that’s the way it’s being done today.
So eventually the whole scheme dwindled down to nothing. They couldn’t get government subsidies for certain planned steamship operations between the Great Lakes and New York. Anyway it went along for two, three years.
Then I devoted my entire time to the Spiradyne Motor for the next several years and got started on the patents, which have all now expired. A patent runs for only 17 years, you know, and that was a long time ago. That was 30 years ago almost.
Q: Prior to that had you involved yourself in any other inventions?
Ellis: Yes, during the war, in the 1940’s, the Second World War, I invented a special type of aircraft carrier airplane elevator which you can see up there on the wall. That’s the carrier that they used them in. There were two per ship. They were big enough to lift this whole house in one piece. The platform, of course, had to be very large because they were lifting fighter planes from the flight deck up to the launching deck, and those elevators were very successful, and they built one hundred of them; and they were used on all of those baby carriers, of which they built 50; and some of the carriers were in the battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. And the elevator saw duty under fire. It was an interesting period for me.
Q: I would think so.
Ellis: But when the war ended, my association with the Sedgewick Machine Works, for whom I was working at the time, ended, too; and I went out as a consultant and got into the ship and shore loading system that I mentioned before. And finally in 1951 I went to work as assistant to the president of the Ford Instrument Division of the Sperry Corporation in Long Island City and worked there for the next seven years.
Q: And what type of work did you do there?
Ellis: Well, I came in as the assistant to the president and then became their quality control director. As Quality Control Director, I had charge of the testing and quality of all of their products, which included fire control for the U.S. Navy, aircraft navigation instruments, a “Timer” and something for the most valuable weapon the United States had in those times, which I won’t mention. That was a special project, and I was in charge of the whole thing. It was quite an interesting responsibility.
Q: I take it you can’t mention it because of security?
Ellis: I’m not certain of the security restrictions on it, so I can’t name it and describe it.
Q: Can you tell any of the names of the people that you worked with or would that be against security?
Ellis: No, no. Well, when I was hired by the president of the firm, Ray Jahn, he lived at Oak Beach, where we had a summer cottage. My mother had built a summer cottage there in 1938, which I eventually bought from her, and I spent most of my time after 1938 down there; and my interests — my political interests add other interests of that nature, municipal interests — were centered down there rather than in Mahwah. Mahwah was where my mother lived and the rest of the family, and I had this beach cottage, which I went to all year round except maybe February.
Q: It was a bad month?
Ellis: And eventually winterized so I could live there all the time.
Q: And you commuted then from Fire Island to your position at Sperry?
Ellis: Yes, from Oak Beach to Long Island City to my job at Ford Instrument.
Q: That must have been quite a trip.
Ellis: Well, it wasn’t any worse than coming from Mahwah to Long Island City. Coming from Mahwah to Long Island City I had to cross two rivers, by two tunnels. . .
Q: And here you just had to cross the ocean.
Ellis: Well, actually go into Hunter’s Point and walk to the plant on the Long Island Railroad, which was a much better railroad in those days than it is now from all accounts.
Q: How do you explain your interest in scientific inventions? Anyone in your background?
Ellis: Well, that’s a good question. Apparently it goes back to Dr. Edward Foreman, who was the fourth man on the totem pole of the Smithsonian Institution when it was first started. In fact, I have reason to believe that Dr. Foreman, who was a medical doctor, by the way, and a professor, both, picked the stone of which the castle building of the Smithsonian Institution is made today. He and the secretary, Dr. Henry, of the Institution, arranged to test the stone, which was Triassic red sandstone, for durability and resistance to freezing and crumbling and pressure and heat and so on. And apparently the choice was pretty good because the stone is still there in good order.
I have in my files a copies from the daybook of the Smithsonian Institution, in which it shows that Dr. Foreman put in a petty cash slip covering the transportation and procurement of a couple of dozen blocks of stone, which is the kind of stone that I just spoke of which the building is now built.
Q: Now, was this your maternal…
Ellis: This is my maternal great-grandfather, yes. He was first a doctor, medical doctor. Then he joined the faculty of the medical school he attended in Baltimore and taught there for a while, and then finally, as he moved from Baltimore to Washington when he was offered this job at the Smithsonian as the general assistant (we call it general manager today). There are lots of references to him and vast quantities of correspondence in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution signed by him.
His first job there was to run the weather reporting branch of the Smithsonian, which was brand-new. In other words, the predecessor of the Weather Bureau of the United States, And he had correspondence with literally hundreds of people around the United States because the Smithsonian in those days would give an observer who had committed himself to the program a free barometer and a rain gauge and an accurate thermometer. And those people reported readings continuously, and they all were funneled in initially to the Smithsonian Institution.
Of course, the Navy was very interested in the weather, too, so eventually that function was taken over by the Naval Observatory maybe five or ten years later. But my great-grandfather was the first man to draw a weather map in the United States. Unfortunately, the Smithsonian had a fire in 1865, and the map was presumably burned in that fire. Whenever they can’t find anything down there they say it “burned in the fire.” (both chuckle) So I’m not sure whether it was burned or not. But at any rate it can’t be found.
Q: You really didn’t fall very far from the tree then. You have a lot of in common with your great-grandfather.
Ellis: Yes, because in 1841 he joined the National Institution for the Promotion of Science, and about 1961 I did the same thing, joining the present day American Association for the Advancement of Science not knowing at that time that my great-grandfather had done the same thing before me.
Q: How did you find out about your great-grandfather?
Ellis: Well, it’s been a custom of mine to take camping trips in the spring going south toward the sun. I love the sun. And on the way down I stopped in Washington on my first trip just on the chance that maybe the Smithsonian knew some thing about my great-grandfather. I knew he had worked there. I knew he was a doctor. But my family, my parents, never told me whether he was a physician or a Ph.D. Well, he was a physician I soon found out when I got into the archives of the Smithsonian and found hundreds of references to him in their correspondence files and his own correspondence for the institution and his letter writing and correspondence with Professor Henry, the first secretary, the great secretary of the institution. And I could spend hours down there researching him further, and I would like to do it, but you can’t do everything. (laughs) So that’s how I found out about my great-grandfather in terms of what he had done there.
Q: And who did he work with when he was down in Washington?
Ellis: Well, of course, the Smithsonian Institution and also Georgetown College, but he was acquainted with all of the notable men of the day. He had correspondence with William Faraday in England, who discovered some of the principles of magnetic behavior. Professor Henry was the first American to discover the principles of electromagnetic induction. In fact, the unit of electrical induction all over the world is known as “the henry.” That’s the unit they measure it by.
Q: Oh, and this is the Henry that they’re referring to.
Q: There is a Henry project now, isn’t there?
Ellis: There is. The Smithsonian is collecting Professor Henry’s papers — meaning his correspondence and family papers, everything that has to do with him — and I believe they’re going to publish 16 volumes. It’s a major project and it’s gone on for years, and I welcome it because Professor Henry’s hand writing is a little difficult to read in the original, because he was always in a hurry. He stretched his letters out without making them go up and down much. He just sort of drew lines horizontally, and they’re very difficult to read. So that if the Henry papers are put into into print as they are, I’m going to look at them with great interest; and I hope that copies will be available to some libraries and maybe we’ll have one locally some day. I hope so.
Q: That would be nice.
Q: Are you involved in the project at all?
Ellis: No, no. This is a professional project by employees of the Smithsonian, some of them specially hired, and there’s a Mr. Nathan Gold who is a professional historian and biographer who is heading it up.
I made the discovery in one of my trips to the Smithsonian that my great-grandfather, Dr. Foreman, had been in the ethnology department of the Smithsonian for many years. During that time he kept the log book of incoming artifacts from explorations all over the United States and the world. In other words, he kept the accession books of the Smithsonian during a very vivid period because things were being discovered about the Indians, and all over the world there were all sorts of things coming into the Smithsonian by gift and by: expeditions and so on. He kept track of all that when it got there. And in order to be sure to identify things, he made illustrations, hand-drawn little illustrations, of each piece of any importance, so that he could surely identify who it came from, who owned it, who donated it, or who loaned it. Many of the things were loaned to the institution and they had to be given back.
Well, at any rate, in this accession book, which Dr. Foreman kept for about seven or eight years in the 1870’s, are his was drawings, thousands of them. I estimate that he must have made 70,000 entries in those accession books and perhaps two or three thousand of them have illustrations, hand-drawn, and I have a microfilm of 200 of them which I picked out as being particularly interesting in terms of art. And the Smithsonian had forgotten they owned these accession books, and I went into the ethnology department just poking around and asked the head of the department, “Is there anything in here about Dr. Foreman?” And he said, “Well, I don’t know. We have these books, but I don’t know who did them because they weren’t signed.” And of course I opened them up and began to look and the handwriting looked familiar. By that time I had seen his other letters in the archives of the Smithsonian, and this handwriting looked familiar to me. Then in one entry I got a big shock, and it proved that it was my great-grandfather that was doing this, keeping these books, because there was an entry there of a donation of a Mexican pottery pitcher, given to the Smithsonian on Christmas Day (the date was Christmas Day), and the person who gave it was named Maud, Maud Baggett. Well, Maud Baggett, it turned out, was a cousin of my mother and a grand-daughter of Dr. Foreman. And what had happened was that Dr. Foreman in the name of Maud, his granddaughter, had given this thing, this pottery thing, to the Smithsonian and recorded it there. Of course, the name Maud was unusual, and I connected the two together, and that proved finally that Dr. Foreman had been keeping these books for all these years and made all these illustrations and entries, all of which came as news to the Smithsonian.
Q: And he lived most of his life in that area?
Ellis: Yes, after he left Baltimore he lived in Washington entirely — except during the Civil War. He lived at 1660 Pennsylvania Avenue, which is almost opposite the White House. And when he sold that house, his wife objected strenuously. He wanted to be near the Smithsonian, because as he got older he had a little trouble walking, and he wanted to be near the Smithsonian building literally. That was a part of town that was not nearly as fashionable as Pennsylvania Avenue was, and his wife objected, but she apparently didn’t govern, in that respect at least, and they sold it and moved to Virginia Avenue.
Q: Well, that’s a marvelous heritage, having someone like that as your great-grandfather. And then I guess this led you to maybe experiment even as a very young boy.
Ellis: Well, as a very young boy I didn’t know anything about all of this, you see.
Q: Without the knowledge but the genes were there.
Ellis: The genes were there, yes. Well, they came out of my mother. Her capability in architecture, drawing, music and so on I’m sure were inherited to some degree from Dr. Foreman. He was a collector; he had a collection of coins and minerals — he was interested in geology and flowers; he was a botanist in addition to an anatomist in his doctorly, medical side. He taught chemistry. He was endowed with a great intellectual capability, and I think my mother inherited that. I think it skipped a generation, how ever, because my mother’s father died fairly young. As the saying goes, he never amounted to much. (laughs) I think he had T.B. as a matter of fact, and died about 1881.
Q: That could account for it.
Ellis: It was about four or five years before Dr. Foreman, his father died.
Q: Did they like to travel? I guess travel wasn’t as easy or as accessible in those years.
Ellis: Well, he mainly traveled in pursuit of his professional responsibilities. He traveled around the United States for the Smithsonian. He was sent on a mission out to St. Louis at one point to look over collections which were offered as possibilities to be included in the Centenary, centennial exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. He did a lot of work on he that; he prepared exhibits, and the correspondence files in the Smithsonian archives are full of his letters about that.
He had a summer place, or they had a summer place, up outside of Baltimore in a bug suburban village. . . (pause) The name of that town, I just looked up, was Catonsville, Maryland.
Q: And what was the big attraction? Was it near the water?
Ellis: It was outside Baltimore, and it was higher in rolling country, pretty country. There wasn’t a lake there, though. The house, which is still standing — I have a picture of it is opposite a very fashionable Episcopal church, although the neighborhood has gone downhill, as neighborhoods do. It’s not as great as it used to be.
Q: Did you ever travel back there?
Ellis: Well, of course, I never did because this is my great grandfather, but. . .
Q: Well, I thought maybe recently you might have…
Ellis: Yes, I went out there to take pictures of it and tried to see whether the family was registered in the papers of the church opposite them, and they weren’t. They must have been a different sect. The church opposite is still well known and attended; and, as I said, it’s Episcopalian, but they had no relation to it.
Q: Could you tell me what your first job was?
Ellis: Yes, my first job when I was a junior in high school during the summer. I wanted to do some work. I was old enough. I was 16, I guess, then. And my father knew Bassett Jones, who was a famous electrical engineer. In fact, he used to be a house guest at the house here occasionally after they sold their house here in Cragmere, which was just a block from here. They were one of the friends we had in Cragmere before we built this house. Anyway Bassett Jones knew a man by the name of Crowell, who was president of the Elevator Supplies Company. And Bassett Jones, who was a consulting engineer and very influential in the awarding of contracts all over the area of New York, suggested that maybe Mr. Crowell should give me a job for the summer. Mr. Crowell was very anxious to please, and he did. So that was my first job for the summer.
Then the next summer came along, and I did the same thing for the same company, expecting to go to Stevens Institute in the fall. I was accepted at Stevens, but the family couldn’t come up with the money to see me through or even begin, so I continued on, working for the Elevator Supplies Company.
There I met a man by the name of Arthur Blair, and later Arthur Blair left the Elevator Supplies Company where he was an employee and went to work for the Standard Oil Company of New York at 26 Broadway; and he took a shine to me and invited me to come over there and work with him for Standard Oil of New York at 26 Broadway in the building maintenance department having to do with the elevators. There were some very fancy special elevators there. They were called Signal Control Elevators, and they had a fancy dispatching system for the elevators so that they would go up and down at the right intervals and do the most good. So I worked there for a year, during which time John D. Rockefeller, Jr. got stuck in one of the elevators, one of these fancy Otis elevators that went up to the main tower of the building, and I remember that day I ran up 17 stories to see if I could help fix the problem, which was in the electrical supply for the elevators. Well, they had gotten it going before I got up to the top, but it was great exercise. At that age — I was about 18, I guess — it didn’t do more than make me lose my breath when I got close to the top.
Well, anyway, Arthur Blair formed a company. He left Standard Oil at 26 Broadway and formed a company called Norton, Blair, Douglass; and the Douglass of that firm was a man who married Mary Cutler, who was the daughter of the millionaire Cutler in Suffern. And he made his money through what’s now called the Abex Corporation. He put together a lot of subsidiaries and wheeling and dealing in the 1920’s he accumulated millions of dollars. And Joe Douglass married his daughter, Mary.
I have been told that when they went on their honeymoon they went to Ireland, they took a string of horses with them. This is a very fancy honeymoon.
Q: Oh, my goodness.
Ellis: There was a lot of money in the family, Mary’s money.
Q: They didn’t think there would be any horses in Ireland?
Ellis: Well, they wanted their own. They rode together a lot. He was a horseman; she was a horsewoman. And then they got back — they had taken movies during this honeymoon of all the things they were doing: the riding and all the sights they were seeing in Ireland — to get the film developed in New York, it was discovered that Joe had put the film in backwards so they didn’t have one single roll (laughter) of moving pictures of the whole thing. Well, that’s luck.
Q: Was this riding country around here?
Ellis: Oh, yes, sure.
Q: I didn’t realize that.
Ellis: I remember my mother’s friends from Suffern would ride which by down at Zisgen House we first rented. I remember seeing them on horseback. This is still riding country to some extent. Two years ago I’ve seen young kids, teenagers, clop-clopping up and down Mahwah Road.
Well, let’s see, where was I?
Q: I had asked you about your jobs and you were telling me about your different jobs.
Ellis: Oh, yes. Norton, Blair, Douglass was founded and the purpose of the company was to manufacture elevator signals in competition with the Elevator Supplies Company where I got my first job. And during the course of the evolution of that Norton, Blair, Douglass Company, we started out small, way over on the West Side in Hell’s Kitchen in an old loft, and we expanded and we moved further east in Manhattan, and we expanded again. We moved to a whole floor down on 34th Street near Ninth Avenue. And it was a continual story of expansion and success. It was great fun, but I was having a ball. And it was during that time that I invented the safety ray for elevator doors. It was an application in which a pair of light beams were directed across an elevator opening on the elevator, the door opening, so that if anybody was entering the elevator and the door started to close for any reason, they would interrupt the light beam and the door would be reversed and caused to open without touching them. And in 1928, when I invented that, that was rally quite remarkable because the photoelectric cell had just been invented successfully and applied with some degree of success to commercial applications, and I got a patent on this, and I think I was about 19 or 20 at the time.
Q: That was quite an accomplishment for that age.
Ellis: Well, it was. It was a wonder. I remember the sales manager of the company stayed up all night one night when I was experimenting with the thing, when it was first wired up in the ikos laboratory, and I remember waving my hand over this photo electric cell with a light above it; and as I waved my hand, the meter attached to the cell through amplifiers moved its needle; and there was no contact between my hand and the needle. And the sales manager thought it was pure magic. And it was, to most people. And later on I made the acquaintance of Walter P. Chrysler, because of the safety ray and the door closer, which I also invented associated with it, an electric motor device. And when Chrysler was building the Chrysler Building in New York, he was seriously thinking of using our door openers and the safety ray on his elevators. But the Otis Elevator Company, who got the contract for the elevators, refused to go along with my device and told Chrysler that the xwould not guarantee the elevators; that they would not guarantee the elevators, unless he used Otis equipment throughout. So that put the kibosh on that particular application.
But later Radio City was built, and of course that’s a far bigger building and development than the Chrysler Building, a while ago and they use it to this very day. I went into New York a while ago, to talk to a meeting of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission Directors about water and on the elevators of Rockefeller Center I was surprised to see still in operation the safety ray which I had invented back in 1927 or ‘8, which was first applied in the Macy Store, as a matter of fact, on elevators there.
Q: Was that in Herald Square?
Ellis: Yes. It still is. Yes. So….
Q: Well, they should have given you a sizable amount of money.
Ellis: Well, of course, when you’re an employee of a company, you assign patent rights to them because they pay your salary, unless you have a special arrangement, and of course I was too young to have any special arrangement. But the company prospered so much and it became such a big supplier for Westinghouse Elevator, that Westinghouse Elevator decided to spend some money and buy us out; and they did. We sold the company to Westinghouse.
Q: And did you go with Westinghouse? Or did you strike out on your own.
Ellis: We all went to Westinghouse under employment contracts for five years each — Douglass, Blair, Norton had died (he was an elderly man) and myself. And I moved out to Chicago in 1930 or ’31. (pause in recording)
There we were in Chicago working for Westinghouse Elevator but it was not satisfactory to us. Although we had employment contracts, we were small frogs in a big pond out there, whereas in our previous operation we’d been small frogs in a very small pond, and we liked it that way. So Blair and Douglass settled employment left the employ, cancelled their contracts with Westinghouse, and came back to New York. And I stayed in Chicago for a while.
Some friends of mine were inspired by an advertisement in Boston about a four-masted barkentine sailing vessel that was going to go around the Mediterranean and down the west coast of Africa and back across to South America and back up home again taking six months. They were looking for paying passengers who would work the ship and learn the art of sailing a large vessel and do some trading with the natives running around the Mediterranean and down the west coast of Africa, and it sounded great to me; so these friends of mine all signed up for the trip and got me interested. And about that time I was pretty well fed up with working out there for Westinghouse, and I decided to settle my employment contract also, which I did, which gave me a large hunk of cash in settlement of it, saving the company money and giving me this “wad” so that I could easily afford to go around the world. Well, I didn’t plan to go around the world; I planned to go on a four-masted barkantine with my friends.
Q: And at what point in time now are we? Around 1930?
Q: Oh, you’re in the Depression now.
Ellis: Oh, yes — severe depression. Westinghouse was completely demoralized. I was making more money than my boss because of the employment contract. They were being asked to take 40% cuts and forced vacations and vacations without pay and all that sort of thing. There was complete demoralization in the company at that time, which was not uncommon in American industry at that time either.
Q: And here you were a young man with a sizable fortune.
Ellis: Yes. Well, it was a lot of cash for those days. I settled the contract for $10,000, which in present-day money would be about five times that.
And so we all went down to Boston having paid an deposit for the trip, and waited a round for the ship to be readied. It was up in Maine being worked on, we were told; and time passed and nothing happened, and I came back to New York and said goodbye to my friends and went back up to Boston again, and still nothing had happened. Well, to make a long story short, nothing did happen. The ship and the whole deal fell through, and it was a local scandal. The Better Business Bureau looked into it and all that stuff.
So having said goodbye to my friends several times, I had to go somewhere. So I bought a ticket around the world good for two years on the Nippon Yusen Kaisha Line, which was a Japanese steamship line; and they would permit me to get off at whatever port I liked and stay as long in the country, any country, as I wanted to; come back to the same port or a different port and pick up one of their ships. And these ships traveled eastward every fortnight.
So there I was with a ticket around the world, which cost me $495 at that time, and some money and the world ahead of me. So off I went on January the 6th from New York City, the harbor, and traveled across to Scotland on the Caledonia, which was sunk in the Second World War, by the way; and I landed at Greenock near Glasgow on a foggy morning and experienced my first thrill of traveling completely off the continental United States. I’d been to Canada, but I’d never been abroad before, and it was eye-opening; it was thrilling; and I was young enough to blot everything up just like a blotter. All sorts of things I remember that struck me were the doubledecker streetcars that they had in Glasgow, for example, and the doubledecker buses later in London. Of course it was the depth of winter and I nearly froze to death in Scotland, so I didn’t stay there more than about four days in Edinburgh and then came down to London. And I kept going eastward whenever the fancy moved me and a ship was available on that particular steamship line. I went to the French Riviera and I went to Paris and I went to Switzerland and I went down through Italy and I spent Easter in Florence and enjoyed the flowers and the scenery and the beauty of the place and Rome, and Sorrento and Egypt and on and on and on. I even went through inland China later by train, the Shanghai Express.
That was an experience. I nearly got put in jail there, because crossing the river at Nanking I was taking moving camera pictures — black and white — of the scenery, but I didn’t know that I was also taking pictures of a fort on the river. And when I got to my train there waiting for me was an army officer, and they were holding the train. They wouldn’t let the train move till this man who had been taking pictures of their local fortress was dealt with. There was a poor American Express guy who was my escort, speaking of course the Chinese dialect and I speaking English. He was actually sweating. He was beside himself. Here we were — this officer, I and this American Express man — on the platform; people in the train, including the engineer, looking back, all along the cars with their heads out the windows to see what was the matter; and here were we three talking about what I had unwittingly done.
Well, to get the train going and my trip resumed, I opened the camera and gave them my film.
Q: That was a wonderful solution.
Ellis: That was the end of that. I kept the camera, and they got the film, which may have been exposed by the light — I don’t know — and away we went. And from there on we went up to Peking, where I stayed a couple of weeks.
That was during the time of the Manchurian wars with Japan. To go to Japan, where I was bound, I had to walk through barbed wire and sandbag emplacements to get on the ship, the Japanese ship, and go across the Yellow Sea to Kobe, Japan. When we got to the tip of Korea, a typhoon came up from the southeast and we were running close to the cliffs of Korea behind some islands, which were sort of land-locked. The channel was land-locked, and it was shallow, because the ship, which was only 5000 tons, was battling huge waves because of the shallowness, very sharp-crested waves; and the ship would go up the side of the wave, over the top, and then the propellers would come out of the water, and they would thresh around, and next it would dive for the bottom of the next wave, and you’d think it was going to go right through like a submarine, but the buoyancy lifted the prow and it would go up again and so on.
Well, we survived it, and we got to Kobe all right; and I traveled through Japan to Tokyo and Myako and other places, and eventually crossed the Pacific on another Japanese boat, stopping in Hawaii and landed at San Francisco in the United States in August of 1933. And there I trans-shipped to a Grace Line boat and went all down along the west coast of Central America and Mexico, stopping at nine ports and through the Canal and home. That ended in 1933.
Q: So the trip took you…
Ellis: About nine months.
Q: Nine months. And what about currency? What type of currency did you take with you?
Ellis: Well, a story of some interest is that when I got to London at the beginning of the trip I read a report of Barclay’s Bank signed by its chairman in which he predicted that the United States would go off the gold standard soon. And what he said made sense, and so I took my bundle of American Express checks up to Thomas Cook’s cashier’s window one day and asked that they be converted to dollars and that the dollars be paid to me in gold; and that was perfectly legal at that time. And I ended up with a little bag, very heavy, of gold coins — American gold coins — which stood me in wonderful stead the rest of the trip, because by the time I got to Italy a month or two later, the United States did go off the gold standard; all the banks were closed; and the tourists in Italy were stranded — they couldn’t get any money to pay their hotel bills or even to buy a meal, and there was panic for about a week. But there I was with my little bag full of gold coins, and I had no problems at all. And by the time I got to Japan and China, a U.S. gold dollar, such as I had, was worth five times what a paper U.S. dollar was worth. And I still to this day have two one-dollar U.S. gold coins — one dated 1854 and theother dated 1870 — which I bought from Thomas Cook that day through the cashier’s window.
Q: How proud your parents must have been of you!
Ellis: Well, they didn’t know anything about it at the time, but I was very pleased with myself because it enabled me to get through the trip without getting any more money from home.
So when I got back my principal interest was to get my photographs printed — enlarged and printed — and I set up to do that myself for the first time I bought an enlarger and set up a dark room in the attic.
Q: Now this is back in Mahwah.
Ellis: This is back in Mahwah in 1933.
Q: In very bad times.
Ellis: In the fall of ’33, and the times were tough, very tough, as tough as any.
Q: And jobs were scarce. Were your sisters employed at this time?
Q: Were you?
Ellis: Not instantly. But as time wore on, I realized that my money was running out, so I better get a job — so I started looking around and of course I approached my friends first and then went further afield. And I got a couple of jobs, one through and advertisement and one with a friend; but they weren’t what I wanted, nor was I what they wanted. So they didn’t last very long. And then finally my old partner at Blair (Norton, Blair, Douglass)… Blair called me and invited me to go and work with him, and we set up an electrical contracting company with offices at 401 Broadway to install elevator signals and door closers, and we were in that business… I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before I did that I approached another friend, Walter Zwoyern who had been at Westinghouse and was the man who was taken out of there on a stretcher, because the stress of the situation at Westinghouse Elevator in Chicago at that time was so great that he just couldn’t cope with it. They thought he was going to die. They literally took him to New York on a stretcher by train.
Well, he recovered when he got home and went to work for the Heide Candy Company, and while he was there as their superintendent, he invented the method of taking cellophane ribbon ribbon — wide ribbons, six or 12 inches wide –, rolling it up into a tube, dropping candy into the tube with one end pinched and then pinching the tube again above the candy, there by making a sort of a cellophane bubble. It was a great success, and they formed a subsidiary of Heide called the Trans-wrap Machine Company and sold machines to do this all over the world, literally all over the world — South America, Japan, everywhere — and those machines are used to this day.
While I was there, I noticed the problems they were having with hot dies to pinch this cellophane together and make it stick to itself, and I invented a method of sealing the cellophane without external heat: in other words, not using hot dies but using cola dies but energizing the space between the dies with high-frequency radio waves in such a way that the cellophane, which was a poor dielectric heated itself andt hereby stuck together while under pressure. But the dies that were squeezing them together were not heated. Therefore, the sugar from the candy, which got on the dies in the usual process, just fell off harmlessly because it wouldn’t melt and stick.
That business of heat-sealing cellophane, plastic in general, electronically, was the first and an unpatented invention of mine — it was the first place it was ever done so far as I know.
Q: You didn’t obtain a patent for it?
Ellis: No, because I left that company and went with Blair on this electrical contracting business shortly thereafter, so it became an abandoned experiment. But since then, of course, cellophane and plastics are sealed all over the world electronically by the same method that I used, and this was in 1934 or ‘5.
Later RCA came to me. In view of litigation they were having with a company they were trying to purchase some things from, they investigated what I had done at Heide Candy in the way of sealing electronically, and they used the fact that I had done it, even though it was an abandoned experiment, to make points in the negotiation, and they apparently felt it was profitable, and I got a fee for telling them about it.
Q: Well, you were a man ahead of your time.
Ellis: I was in that case.
Q: Well, I want to thank you very much for this interesting discussion. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Ellis: You’re welcome, I’m sure.
Interviewee: Charles Edwin Ellis, Jr.
Interviewer: Janice McCue
Place: Mahwah, NJ
Interview No. 2 – April 2nd 1981
Q: This is the second Interview with Mr. Charles Edwin E1lis, Jr. Mahwah, New Jersey, at Mahwah, and the date is April 2nd 1981.
Q: Mr. Ellis?
Q: During the 1950’s you were at Sperry Rand.
Q: Did you enjoy your years at Sperry Rand?
Ellis: Oh yes, indeed I did, especially the first five or six.
I went in there as assistant to the president, and at that time they were making a product for the Atomic Energy Commission, which was used in the most important weapon that the United States ever had. I was assigned by the president to take care of that particular project only, in the beginning. In other words, I was responsible for the liaison between the purchaser and my company.
And because the project represented a large volume of business in the millions of dollars for our company — the Ford Instrument Company — and it was so important to the welfare and the security of the United States; it was a very fascinating and a very intensive job.
We got the thing under control, and succeeded in delivering on time, and with the high quality indeed,
After that job tapered off…
Q: Whom did you work with when you were at Sperry Rand?
Ellis: I reported directly to the president. He was my boss — the president of the Ford Instrument Division, that is.
You see, Ford Instrument was a division of Sperry Rand — it was Sperry at that time, not Sperry Rand, that came later, you see — and we grew later to a Division having 4000 employees.
By that time I had been transferred and promoted to be the quality control director of the company, responsible for the quality of all their products, which were very extensive and very precise,
Anyway, after the first project tapered off I was made quality control director, and some months after that happened we were approached by the Army who had decided to build rockets according to the plans of the Germans who had surrendered to us after the Second World War.
At that time the group of Germans — there were about 100 of them — headed by Werner von Braun he and others of his staff came to the Ford Instrument Company to look us over, because they were looking for some body in the United States to make the guidance and control for the upcoming rockets to be known as the Redstone Rocket.
The designs of those rockets were entirely due to the German know-how which Werner von Braun and his staff brought to this country. And Werner von Braun and a few of his people came to the company and looked us over, and talked with the employees and so forth.
The Germans immediately discovered that many of our employees who came from Queens, were Germans too and spoke their language, and that was a great plus, I think, in eventually landing the work.
We were selected by the Army to supply all the guidance and controls for the early rockets to the United States put up. In fact for the first United States satellite that was put up — in a successor to the Redstone Rocket — the guidance and control was tested and adjusted in my department, the quality control division.
As you know we put up the satellite a year or so after the Russians did.
We could have put up a satellite before them, had the War Department, or the Department of the Army — especially the civilian secretary — been able to realize that satellites were going to be important, and that we had the capability to do it. But they didn’t. They dragged their feet, and even the President — President Eisenhower at that time — is said to have remarked that satellites were something that were way off in the future, and were, in his view at least, insignificant. So we didn’t do it, but we could have.
So the Russians beat us to it, I remember the day that I heard the news that they had put up a satellite I felt like rolling in the gutter, because we knew and we could have done it, but they wouldn’t let us. When I say “us” I mean the Army, von Braun and his Germans and our suppliers.
Q: Did you feel demoralized?
Ellis: No, I just felt that we had wasted a great opportunity, that we had thrown it away, because the civilian control and the people in the upper echelon of the Army didn’t realize the importance and the significance of what the Germans had been doing with the rockets. The Army looked at then as ballistic missiles that went up and came down on the United States or on Russia or wherever, and didn’t think In terms of reaching a velocity with them which would put something into orbit where it would stay. Of course now we know that that it could and is being done all over the world, especially by the two superpowers.
Q: And after your position at Sperry Rand where did you go then?
Ellis: Well, before we get to that let me tell you more about the work at Sperry Rand.
We supplied the nuclear reactor submarines of the Navy — one of the early ones, which later had a name called — ha! — “50,000 Leaks Under the Sea,” because they attempted to use mercury instead of water in the boilers. It was a special design, and they found out technologically that they couldn’t keep the mercury in the pipes and in the boilers, that it would constantly leak through welded joints, so therefore our work, which was completely satisfactory according to Admiral Rickover, was finished and done properly and delivered on time, but the steam making apparatus of the submarine, which was heated by nuclear fission, wasn’t successful. So eventually the Seawolf — that was its name — was decommissioned. It was just before that that it got the name that I just said, ‘20,000 Leaks Under the Sea.”
Q: And that’s L, E, A,K,S, ?
Ellis: L.E.A.K.S., right.
Q: It sounds as if you enjoyed your years at Sperry Rand.
Ellis: Oh I did, very much, until near the end — and at that time, a couple of years or maybe three years before I left there, a very ingenious engineer, I might say a genius of an engineer, had devised a navigation instrument for the use in aircraft which Boeing was manufacturing for the Air Force, which would tell the position of the aircraft any place in the world automatically to the pilot, and it was important to know that because when refueling a bomber up in the air, the rendezvousing planes had to know exactly where the bomber was in order to meet it and inject their gasoline supply into the bomber to enable it to go further.
The engineer that designed this thing unfortunately after he’d made the design and the project began to be manufactured came down with epileptic problems which destroyed his usefulness. unfortunately. He would be there for a while, and then he would get sick, and he’d drop out, and then be there for a while and then drop out, so that the project which he had fathered and the design which he had conceived was sort of an orphan, and we ran into all sorts of troubles.
Q: This must have been very disappointing to you,
Ellis: It was very disappointing and very frustrating, and it eventually caused Sperry a great financial loss about 15 million dollars.
But my boss, the president of the company — the president of Ford Instrument — and I and others in the company had been offered stock option plans which were common in those days, which enabled the key employees — I was one of the eight directors of the company — to buy Sperry stock at a certain fixed price, and since the market was going up that became a very attractive thing to do later. And my boss, who by that time had acquired an ulcer and was getting on in years a bit, decided that he would save his ulcer and his health by retiring, which he did.
The man that had hired me was replaced by another guy whom I didn’t know from another part of the Sperry Rand divisions, and I didn’t care too much for him, and I guess the feeling was mutual (laughs).
Anyway about a year later, in 1958, we parted company by mutual agreement.
Q: And this was the president?
Ellis: The new president, yes, of Ford.
Q: And you were the assistant to the…
Ellis: No, I was the quality control director for six years before I left.
I was so glad to step out of the rat race and the frustration and the impossible conditions concering that particular product that when we talked it over I was more than glad to get away from it all. And I went down to my beach cottage and spent the rest of the summer, I figured I’d take two years off anyway and not do anything but work on the beach cottage, which I did. I put in a cellar, I put on a couple of jetties, a dock and all that sort of thing myself, and I did a lot of sailing and entertaining, and it was great.
Then I figured that well, maybe I’d better go out and see if I can get a job!
That turned out to be a hope rather than an accomplishment because at that age — in 1958, I was 51 years old, over 50 — in places like IBM and others they would look at me and say, “Yes, Mr. Ellis, your qualifications are great, and your record is great.” Then they would come along later with a form letter that said, “We have looked over your resumé et cetera, et cetera, but we find that you are overqualified.”
Q: But what they were really doing was discriminating against age.
Ellis: Yes, they were, sure, but that was the way it was done in those days, and the rules of the law were not as strict then as they are now.
Q: We didn’t have President Reagan as an example — a 70 year old President.
Ellis: Right. Anyway I got tired of looking for a job fruitlessly and I decided in 1961 to go around the world. In the meantime I had been living on the proceeds of the sale of my Sperry stock, my option stock — I had a lot of shares of it, several thousand. I had bought it at an equivalent price of 16, and the market was 64, so there was a lot of money to play with there.
So I decided in 1961 to go around the world.
Q: This was your second trip.
Ellis: My second trip, in the opposite direction around the world, going westward this time. I wanted to do it on the surface as much as I could, that is to say without using aircraft, because I know enough about aircraft to want to stay away from them as much as feasible.
So I got on the train in Suffern, New York — the next town up the Erie Railroad which runs through here — and got on the Chicago Express, which they flagged down especially on a February day in 1961 to let me go on board, and — I think I’ve said this before — the conductor of the train knew that he was supposed to pick up a body at Suffern. He thought it was a casket, but it turned out that it was me. (laughter)
Q: Oh, he was in for a surprise.
Ellis: Yes. So I went out to Chicago, and unfortunately you had to change in Chicago to go further west by railroad, so I spent some time in Chicago in one of the hotels. I rented a day room and called up some of my friends in Chicago and talked.
Then finally I got on the California Zephyr of the Rock Island Line, and went for three days and two nights out to San Francisco through some marvelous country, and was able to see it (when it was daylight) the whole distance, which is the great thing about traveling surface — through Nebraska, Utah, Nevada and so on.
When I got to San Francisco I boarded the Mariposa, a ship of about 22,000 or 25,000 tons, which was going to take me to New Zealand by way of Tahiti. Of course all my life I had heard about Tahiti and its assets (laughs). ..
Q: Did it live up to your expectations?
Ellis: Oh it sure did. This was before they had the airport on Tahiti. They were building the airport, but there was no air access, it so it was pretty much like it had always been. It wasn’t loaded with tourists or Frenchmen who were testing atomic bombs as happened later. It was really great, it was wonderful. I took lots of pictures and made tape recordings. I had bought a tape recorder, by the way, in San Francisco, an early tape recorder about the size of a book. They were quite rare, so that whenever I used it and immediately played it back, especially in primitive countries, it would cause a sensation if not a riot, (laughs) among the populace, because people whe hearing their own voices for the first time.
So we left Tahiti, and then on to New Zealand, New Zealand is a socialist country, and they had arranged unbeknownst to me for my tour through New Zealand for two weeks by bus, which meant very often getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning and sitting in a bus all day and arriving late in the afternoon in some new place. It was fascinating, but it was strenuous.
Finally at the end of the trip I went over to Australia, where I found that I probably had a little pneumonia.
Australia was quite a time.
But New Zealand is an interesting place. I don’t know if you really want me to talk about New Zealand. This is travelogue really.
Q: Well, the highlights,
Ellis: It has two million people and 24 million sheep. And marvelous scenery, and the oldest automobiles — American automobiles — I’ve seen outside of a museum, and all in good working order, be cause to buy a car in New Zealand you have to overcome an import duty which makes them extremely expensive, so everybody uses their cars forever until they fall apart, and that takes a long time if they are properly cared for.
So I went over to Australia, by air this time, and I remember the morning that I flew up from the southern Island of New Zealand to Wellington, where I was going to take off. I looked out the window of the plane — we went up along the coast — and I saw down in the sea what I thought was a sailboat, a white dot on the surface of the sea, and I looked down and I took a picture of it. It wasn’t a sailboat because it made no wake. It didn’t move, this white dot on the sea, a bright white dot, and it looked like a mound of white.
Well, anyway I couldn’t figure that out, but I took a picture of it and I still have it.
When I got to Wellington that night and changed planes — I was sitting next to a man in the airplane, and we were going to head for Australla and the man said just to make conversation, “Did you feel the earthquake this morning?”
I said, “No, I was in the air coming up from Christ Church Wellington to Auckland, and I didn’t feel anything.”
He said, “Yes, the sea roared, and waves came in on the beach, and chimneys fell, and it was quite a quake.” He was & New Zealander.
So what I had seen through the window of the plane that morning was a release of gas from a fault that runs just off the New Zealand coast. I didn’t know that the earthquake was going on because I was up in the air, but that’s what that white mound on the sea was.
Q: How interesting.
Ellis: And since I’ve looked more closely at the pictures I took I can see that it is a mound, it is a fountain of gas roaring up through the water and making a white foam, a mound of white foam, probably 300 feet in diameter I would guess, because we were flying quite high.
Q: That’s an unusual shot to have.
Ellis: Yes, I remember when we landed in Australia we found out later that the landing, which was an instrument landing — although the weather was good — was a practice landing for a pilot who was being educated. We had a full plane of passengers, and he brought down that plane about two feet below the runway. In other words we hit like a rock, but luckily the landing gears stayed put and nothing collapsed, and we were all right, but it was the hardest landing I have ever taken in a plane, and the idea that the Aussies would permit a pilot to do his training with a full load of passengers is a little bit startling to say the least.
Q: And then from Australia where did you go next?
Ellis: I went up to India — Delhi, India — which of course is a fascinating country, and does the same things to you that Mexico does, only more so. I think I got a touch of cholera while I was there. I had had cholera shots before I went there.
Q: I was just going to ask you that.
Ellis: I think that’s what probably helped save my life, because in the hotels they are only supposed to serve you boiled water for drinking purposes, but sometimes the servants get careless and don’t boil the water. The same thing happened to me in Haiti once, but this time it was something I had never experienced before. I went to the John every 15 minutes, I was becoming completely dehydrated. And in this hotel, which was a nice little hotel in New Delhi, they had a kitchen combined with the bathroom, if you can imagine that, but of course the plumbing for both is in one place (laughs), and it had a refrigerator, and I kept bottles of cold water in there. They also happened to have a salt cellar full of salt in the kitchen — in the kitchen-john so to speak. Now common sense told me that I was being rapidly dehydrated, and I decided that I would drink salt water, which I did. During the course of the two days that I was under this affliction I could finally smell ammonia, and I knew that that meant that the tissue in the Intestinal canal was being excavated by the disease, and that there might be a perforation — I found that out later.
Anyway I drank the salt water — I drank it and drank 1t — and finally the symptoms stopped. and and I was able to walk around, and I went out and got not Kaopectate, but some other powerful sulfa drug from a drugstore in New Delhi and took that, and that seemed to control it.
Q: After you recovered were you able to travel throughout India?
Ellis: Yes. I didn’t go throughout India, but I went to Pakistan and Kashmir. To go to Kashmir you fly out of New Delhi, and you fly up along the Himalayan Mountains, and 1f you are lucky you get to Kashmir and land. But on the first attempt I and a bunch of other Americans on a tour — 1t was their second attempt the airport was fogged in and the passes through the mountains were full of clouds, so they couldn’t get to Srinagar, which is the capital of Kashmir, and they had to turn around and come back — one of the uncertainties of travel in India.
So we tried it again later, and we were able to get through, this time in an older plane which had a ceiling of 14,000 feet, and the highest pass we had to go through was 12,000 feet, so we sort of scraped past the side of the Himalayan Mountains looking up at them on each side of us — they were higher than we were — and the plane made it across of course, or I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it.
Q: Must have been a very skilled pilot.
Ellis: It landed, and I enjoyed tremendously getting away from New Delhi because the temperatures in New Delhi in April before I left had been up to 108, and when I got to Kashmir it was 11ke turning the calendar back, and it was marvelously salubrious.
I stayed in what had been a palace of one of the sultans of Kashmir, and got a haircut out in front of my room, which was on the first floor, and I took a lot of pictures. I went down on local to the lake and was paddled around the lake in the local boat — I’ve forgotten the name of it at the moment (a shihara) — and it was really beautiful there, beautiful.
Then I left Kashmir and came back to Pakistan, to Lahore and Peshawar. While I was in Peshawar I decided to take a trip through the Khyber Pass, and through the local travel a gent I hired a car — I was the only one in it — and a driver, and we went through the Khyber Pass all the way to Afghanistan, to the border with Afghanistan, which is on the west end of the Khyber Pass. I could look over and see the country, but I didn’t see Kabul, which was several hundred miles beyond the horizon.
Then we had to turn around and come back, and be out of the Khyber Pass by orders before 5 o’clock in the afternoon, because at that time the Pathans, to whom the British had turned over the policing of the Khyber Pass in order to keep them under control, they’d take over as police, and anybody found in the pass after that time was subject to arrest. It is pretty dangerous country.
A couple of young Americans had made their way through Afghanistan toward Peshawar and they never made it. They were camping, and they simply disappeared on the way. They were probably murdered, and their goods taken. In fact in Peshawar there is roughly a murder a day, and it’s not a very large city.
I went downtown once and photographed the area. I stayed in the main square and didn’t go into any of the side streets.
Q: How large a group did you travel with?
Ellis: I didn’t travel with a group.
Q: You were on your own?
Ellis: On, all of my traveling is always on my own.
Q: And through the Khyber Pass you went alone?
Ellis: Yes, alone. I just hired the car.
Q: And you were aware of the dangers?
Ellis: Well, I knew what the requirements were, yes. They had told me that you had to be out by 5 o’clock.
I took another trip — a side trip — through another pass, the Kahot Pass, to a village where they make copies of old British rifles, and the road to this place is lined with poppy fields for opium making of course, and I remember the driver and I, again alone in a rented car, were asked by one of the police stations along the way through the pass — they are like castles very often, police who regulate traffic and prevent smuggling, theoretically, and all the rest of the regulations that are required in a country like that — and they asked us to stop at a small bridge or culvert and put our car in the middle of the road. They asked my driver to do it, and of course he obeyed, they were the police — because they had spotted coming down from Kahot, the city — the town, I should say, where they make the rifles, the guns — a car full of people who were probably smuggling out gums which are contraband, so as these people came down the road towards us raising a great bunch of dust behind them on the dirt road they saw us on the bridge and they assumed that we were moving, that we were just passing through the bridge, but we weren’t we were parked there by request. As they got close enough to us at full speed they realized that we were standing there, and they swerved to our right and squeezed between us and the culvert parapet, and just missed hitting us, and they ran into the hands of the police who stopped them, and they all got out, and at that point we took off and went on up to the place where we intended to go in the first place. And I saw how they made guns. Very primitive methods, but good workmanship.
We came back later through the same poppy fields, and eventually I went back to New Delhi, and one night I took an airplane from New Delhi to Karachi where I met a KLM plane coming from further east. The Indian Government wouldn’t let KLM land in New Delhi because the Dutch Government wouldn’t let Air India land somewhere else in Europe — in Holland — so that they were fighting a sort of a war. So I had to take another Air India plane down to Karachi to get the KLM plane which took me to Beirut in one fell swoop that night. And I got to Beirut at a bout 5 o’clock in the morning.
Q: Did you stay in Beirut for a considerable length of time?
Ellis: Well, I stayed I think a little over a week, at which time I went to Damascus, Syria, and saw the church which has a sanctuary in it which holds the head of John the Baptist. It’s now a Moslem mosque, but it’s got this container, you might say — a large glass structure which looks like a greenhouse, full of flowers, and it’s right in the middle of this mosque, with a huge ceiling above it and space all around it, but there right in the middle is this sanctuary where allegedly the head of John the Baptist is still resting.
Q: Did you notice any feeling of unrest when you were there in Lebanon? Now this was 1961, I think.
Ellis: Not in Lebanon, but in Damascus I did, because I took some pictures, and I was warned by the travel agent, “Don’t point your camera in that direction because that’s an army barracks.”
I noticed these guys that looked like nobody special leaning out the windows and yelling at me, and sort of waving and so on, but that’s what it was — there was an army barracks there, and It’s not permitted to photograph army barracks in Syria.
Of course things have gotten a lot worse since.
That trip in 1961 was a good time to move because the Indians and the Kashmiri who had been fighting had stopped fighting temporarily, the trouble hadn’t started in Beirut, and it was during a time of economic depression, 1961.
Q: Kennedy was President at the time.
Ellis: He was, and I was out of the country during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, so I didn’t hear any of that direct.
But being depression time (in these other places) it meant saving quite a lot of money.
I was on that trip eight months, and I think I spent about 9000 dollars of Sperry Rand’s stock proceeds. (laughs)
When I came back I resumed as I was before I left, except that I had an awful lot of pictures to sort out and arrange.
Q: Did you ever submit them to any travel magazines?
Ellis: Well, not to a travel magazine, but one of my pictures taken in New Zealand was printed in Life International. One afternoon I took a picture of some women who every Saturday gather in a certain place in one of the towns of New Zealand, Rotarua, and bowl on the green, and the picture was used — they could have used some of the others too, and I am sorry they didn’t, but they didn’t — and I got paid for it, which makes me a sort of a professional photographer. (laughs heartily) At least I’ve been on the mailing list from Germany for the Photokina exhibition that they have every year over there. They cordially invite me to come to their exposition each year in Germany. Well, that might be something to do some time, but not now. (laughs)
Q: And now you are back home and it’s the latter part of 1961.
Ellis: Right, 1961.
Q: It’s a period of recession, and you are looking for employment again?
Q: With the disadvantage of the age factor now.
Ellis: Being even older than before I left, of course, so I devoted myself to enhancing the beach cottage, planting several hundred black Japanese pines, and making a garden patio.
Q: Where did you plant all these Japanese pines?
Ellis: Well, at the beach, where the cottage was built on top of a sand dune — pure white quartz sand — we had two problems of erosion. One was wind erosion — trying to blow the sand dune away — and the other was water erosion on my beachfront. The inlet tried to wash the sand away, and the only way to hold sand there is to use vegetation, generally speaking, which slows down the speed of the wind over sand and tends to make the whole unit stay as one where the vegetation is planted.
So I planted a couple of hundred black Japanese pines, I planted bayberry bushes, I planted beach grass. Everywhere I could find a space that was empty I planted something, and succeeded finally in stabilizing the whole dune. If I hadn’t succeeded the house would have been undermined and caved in very much before the date that we are talking about.
Q: Did the other inhabitants of that beach follow your lead? Were they engaged in this practice?
Ellis: They were engaged in it to some extent, but nobody but the Ellises had built a new house on top of the sand dune, because most of the old timers down there knew that sand dunes are moving features of the landscape, but the Ellises didn’t know that. We found out, but we didn’t know it in the beginning.
The first winter we discovered that the wind whistling around the corners of the house scooped out the sand five or six feet deep, and the posts under the house are only six feet long, so that there was danger, unless we stabilized the sand, that the house would be undermined.
I spent the next 20 some odd years making sure that that didn’t happen.
Down at the beach, which was wonderful to have –your own beach, 150 feet of it right on the Atlantic Ocean, inlet that is — I had a water erosion problem. Because the tide of course moved in and out, changing direction twice a day, and the currents plus the waves continually tried to eat the sand away, and I put in two jetties of my own design, which were made out of the type of tropical wood which comes from British Guyana which the borers won’t touch because it’s chemically poisoned by nature. It’s called greenheart, and it’s quite expensive. It won’t float, it’s very heavy, 1t has to be cut there in British Guyana and shipped to the United States.
Anyway that’s what I used for the jetties, and the Jetties are like a fence which runs out from the beach straight out, and slows down and reduces the velocity of the current parallel to the beach, which means that the beach is not eroded at nearly the rate that it would happen if they were not built.
So I learned about beach erosion — that is to say water beach erosion — and air erosion during that time, and a lot of my effort down there was directed toward enhancing the vegetation and making sure that the land stayed under the house and within the boundaries of the lot.
Q: I take it you were successful.
Ellis: Yes, I was successful, and was imitated by other people in the design of the jetties that I used. They were low and perforated rather than being solid fences.
I remember Robert Moses, who rented a house behind my house on several occasions; we were talking about the new Moses beach across the inlet from us, where there was a big water tower built like the tower in Venice — the bell tower in Venice — and something like the Jones Beach tower too, right close to the edge of the water, and I said that every geologist knows that the history of sandy beaches — of strips like that off the coast — is that nothing happens very much in the way of erosion for maybe 30 or 100 years, and then a big storm comes along and rolls the beach over toward the land, wrecking every structure on it.
Moses then said, “Well, what’s the use of doing anything of that’s the case?”
And of course I said, “That’s a good question.”
Of course he had built Jones, Beach and Moses Park and bridges and roads to get to them, and of course they are all enjoyed by the populace, but nothing is permanent in this life, and some day all of that is going to disappear if we wait long enough.
Moses is quite a guy. He used to swim, he was a champion swimmer when he was at Oxford, and he is really a very remarkable man, keenly intelligent and tremendously experienced and forceful. I had dinner at his house a couple of times and enjoyed his company to some degree. I doubt if he goes down there any more, but neither do I. (laughs)
Q: You sold your house?
Ellis: I sold the house in 1969. I had rented it for a couple of before that seasons before that, and the taxes were going up all the time.
When the house was built the taxes were six dollars a year.
Q: And that was what year?
Ellis: That was 1938, and when I sold it in 1969 — 31 years later — the taxes were about 350 dollars a year, which doesn’t sound like much, but nevertheless it’s 90 times greater than the original taxes, which is quite a percentage increase.
Q: What prompted you to sell the house?
Ellis: Well my mother had died in 1966, and I had to travel continually between the two places — come back here and mow the lawn or do what needed doing here, and then go down there and fight erosion and do what needed doing down there, and it just got to be too much, plus the financial drain. It was a luxury which I could not afford. My income was zero, and had been zero for ten years. You see, I had been spending capital, — This money from the Sperry Rand stock and an annuity from them and so on– and finally it got to be sort of nip and tuck whether I would run out of money before I retired on social security or not, and I made it, (laughs), but it was a close one. So I sold the house in 1969, and invested the proceeds in bonds, which seemed the orthodox thing to do at that time.
Q: This was 1969?
Ellis: It was 1970. And I have lived on unearned income ever since, which is a very pleasant occupation. But with inflation the way It’s been it’s getting to be a little bit tight.
Q: A different type of erosion.
Ellis: Yes. (laughs) Right, the erosion of the dollar, which is pervasive, really.
Q: I am sure you have many interests now. What are some of them?
Ellis: Well, in 1970, for example, I was invited to become a member of the newly formed Environmental Commission in Mahwah. I had been on the Shade Tree Commission, and on the Shade Tree Commission I became interested in the mountains over here, because part of the town government proposed to downzone the mountains so that they could be built upon by motels, hotels, factories, ski places, anything to develop the mountains.
Well, the mountains of course are solid rock and steep, and completely unsuited to such developments, and a great scream went up among the community against this proposal, and it came to my notice that the mountains were probably the last source of fresh water in Bergen County, and especially for Mahwah, — not fresh water, but pure water — because they were uninhabited. They were high, the rain fell on them, and it was not contaminated or polluted by any of man’s works. So I made a study of the geology of the mountains, and in doing that I discovered the existence of the Ramapo fault, and the reason that I was able to do that was because on the Shade Tree Commission there was a little blonde woman who was a housewife we all thought, but when I began to talk about geology I quickly discovered that she was a geologist and a Ph D at that, and worked at the Lamont Doherty Observatory with her own laboratory. She was an expert on sea sediments or sediments in general, and she invited me to go down to the library there and make use of the facilities there, which are extensive, and by studying there at intervals of maybe a couple of times a week I found the existence of the fault, which runs right under the middle of Mahwah, and is at the foot of the mountains. And later when an earthquake occurred in Waldwick — which was billed by the newspapers as a sonic boom, not an earthquake — I made some investigations around through the Police Departments in the various towns, and found that earthquake reports had come in to them — 50 or 60 in Waldwick alone —
Q: What year was this?
Ellis: I’ve forgotten, but it was in the 1970’s, in the early 1970’s. And as a result of that the Bergen Record — the newspaper — picked up the story and interviewed me and I told them about the existence of the Ramapo fault, which to them was completely news, and they did a feature on it, with maps and illustrations, and that was the beginning of the local knowledge — in fact the metropolitan knowledge — of the existence of the Ramapo fault, which later in terms of the Indianpoint nuclear reaction was of great importance, because no nuclear reactor is supposed to be built near an active fault. Later it was established through the use of seismographs that the Ramapo fault is in fact active, and I believe that the Indian Point reactor should be shut down. It’s too close to 16 million people, and it should never have been built where it is.
Q: And have there been any more earthquakes?
Ellis: Oh there have been many — many small ones. There now is an extensive network of seismographs up and down the Ramapo fault, and they get periodic indications of movement on it — small movements, but the geologists and the seismologists say that when there are small earthquakes and where there are small earthquakes there can be large earthquakes. The frequency is just less, and you never know when a much bigger one will strike. It’s been said by Jack Oliver — an expert formerly at Lamont Doherty — that in the metropolitan area a Richter 6 earthquake could strike at any time, and yet buildings and structures in this area are in no way geared up to withstanding an earthquake of that magnitude.
Q: Are you presently engaged in any environmental activity?
Ellis: Yes, I am. Of course my interest is there. I have been a member of the Rockland County Conservation Association, which is just over the state line in the next county, wherein Suffern lies. I have been a member, and was asked to become a director at-large of that Association, and I have attended their monthly meetings and affairs and their business for the last three or four years, so that I am exposed constantly to the questions which come to them. They are the oldest conservation association in New York State, and they are well known, and they frequently I get letters from Senators and Congressmen, and from other associations people worried about the Indian Point reactor and other environmental influences, of the disposition of solid waste in Rockland County, and on and on and on. It’s just an endless series of problems which face any metropolitan area.
Q: Now this is Rockland County?
Ellis: This is Rockland County.
Q: But you live in Bergen County.
Ellis: I live in Bergen County, and that’s why I am a director at-large, not a regular director, but at-large. That’s how they dealt with the problem that I live in New Jersey, and they apparently welcome the advice that I am able to offer them in view of my past experience. So that’s an activity, and as I was saying the Army Engineers approached me to become a member of the Upper Ramapo Sub Basin Coordination Group.
That group is concerned with the flooding in Suffern and Mahwah especially, and all the way up the line to the source of the River, which is a tributary to the Passaic River in New Jersey.
Strangely enough, the DEC in New York State made the request to the Army Engineers that I be so asked to join.
Q: Could you tell me what DEC represents?
Ellis: The Department of Environmental Conservation in New York State. They deal with the environment and rivers and all that.
Q: Is there one for New Jersey?
Ellis: There is one in New Jersey. In New Jersey it’s called the DEP — Department of Envionmental Protection. But they are similar, except that the Department in New York State is a little bit more professional, I think, than the one in New Jersey.
Q: Is that why you selected the one in New York States as opposed to the one in New Jersey?
Ellis: No, I wasn’t being asked to join the DEP in New Jersey My connection with activities in New Jersey has been strictly limited to Mahwah itself.
Q: Are you engaged in these environmental activities in Mahwah then?
Ellis: No, I am not doing a thing for Mahwah now.
Q: But you were at one time.
Ellis: Yes, the Mahwah Environmental Commission I was a charter member of, but I didn’t continue in that course because I could not get the municipal government in Mahwah to agree to hold me harmless as a member of this commission against any possible suits by outsiders. The Board of Education members in Mahwah — and in fact all through the State of New Jersey — are protected by state law against suits like that. But as a member of the Environmental Commission I would not be protected.
Q: Have there been any lawsuits in this area?
Ellis: Oh, not that I know of, but I’ve had personal experience of a lawsuit at my beach cottage in Long Island — my former beach cottage — which was sort of traumatic experience because I was sued by a trespasser who had an accident on my property, and who I didn’t know was there and never saw and had no knowledge of until much later when I was served with a summons, or rather a subpoena to appear in court, and I was sued for a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and that hung over me for five years. And during that ttxxa time I was constantly reminded of this suit by the progress through the courts, or progress toward the court, which was the Supreme Court of Queens County.
The thing was finally settled just before the trial was to begin. Fortunately the judge in the case knew the conditions at at a beach such as mine, and the settlement was made in his chamber swhile prospective jurors fidgeted. It cost me a couple of thousand dollars. But the experience of having this thing hang over my head and a possible liability of 200,000 dollars for five years was something that I don’t want to repeat.
So I am very conservative and very cautious on serving on anything where there is the possible liability of a lawsuit. And in these contentious days people seem to go to court and sue each other at the drop of a hat. It’s great stuff for the lawyers, but to hire a lawyer to defend yourself is very expensive — 50 bucks an hour perhaps — and that’s a financial risk that I don’t choose to take.
Q: And understandably so.
Ellis: Yes. So I enjoy my work with the Rockland County Conservation Association, and right now I am faced with whether or not to continue to belong to this Upper Ramapo Sub Basin coordination group, because the same liability is there as I avoided by resigning, or rather getting out of the Mahwah Environmental Commission, so I have a choice to make.
Q: Have you brought this to the attention of any of the lawyers that are concerned with this?
Ellis: Not the lawyers, but I have brought it to the attention of the Mayor of the town — the former Mayor of the town, and she said she would see what she could do, but nothing has happened, and I haven’t pursued the matter any further. So I may not join, and I may just go to the meetings and listen without saying anything, which is something that is not very useful to the community, but it may be the course of wisdom. (laughs) So that matter is still undecided.
Q: Do you have any other inventions on the horizon?
Ellis: Well, I have a medical discovery on the horizon, but I don’t think I had better talk about it now until it’s proved out a little further.
Q: Could I ask you in what area? Could you give us a clue?
Ellis: Well, it’s too early really.
Q: Too early? All right. Nothing else during this period from the 1950’s to the 1970’s? Because in the beginning — in our first interview — you did discuss many inventions, and I was wondering if you had done anything say within the last ten years.
Ellis: Well, only the Luxbeau, which is sitting up in the attic.
Q: The Luxbeau? What’s that?
Ellis: Oh, I hadn’t mentioned that before? The Luxbeau is a device which involves the writing of a score to match a musical score, but the writing of the score which matches the musical score will be, and is, in terms of light — a light show — and this mechanism, which is sitting up in the attic, is arranged so that if I or anyone else who has the talent to do it chose to write a score — a light score to match a musical score — the two can be played together and complement each other. The viewer would hear the music and see the light show in synchronism with it on a screen, hopefully larger than a TV screen, but it could be a TV screen — it could be adapted to that — and that has been lying up there for the last two or three years, and I have done nothing with it. There are so many other things to do which are more immediate and more important and utilitarian that I have just sort of dropped it. Maybe I’ll go back to it some day if I can get outdoors.
Q: How do you manage all your interests ?
Ellis: Well, carefully. (laughs) I keep a daily diary so I know what I’ve done, and every once in a while I make a list of things to do and things undone.
My immediate project is going to be — as soon as the weather gets warm enough — to put a new roof on the next porch. I did the west porch last summer. Then I have to take down all the shutters on the house, sand then and paint them. And I’ve got to plant my vegetable garden. I grow vegetable in our lawn in strips, where the sun is strong. And then there is the constant mowing of the lawn all summer long, and so on and on and on and on. There is no end to it. When you own a house you are beholden to it, and if it’s the principal asset — as it is in this case, I own half of this house — you devote yourself to it rather than hiring some body else to do it for you. There are double advantages there because when you hire an outsider — a contractor — to do a job, he has to make a profit on his wages, which he pays himself at a fairly high rate, the going rate — which 18 about 20 bucks an hour now for carpenter work — and then the Government taxes him and he allows for that tax in his price to you. Whereas if you do it yourself you can set your own hourly value, and you don’t pay any tax on it because there is no income involved, you are doing it yourself. So it short-circuits the whole tax system legitimately, and anybody who is able to do their own work is crazy to hire somebody else to do it, if they have the time to perform it themselves. And I make the time. After all, I am supposed to be retired!
Q: What in your life has given you the most pride?
Ellis: Well, my inventions. There is no greater thrill than getting an idea and working it out, and finally seeing it embodied in physical form and operating, working. I suppose it’s something like being the father of a child, although I don’t know. But the pride of achievement, the feeling of achievement that you get from such a creative effort is worth more than money by far.
Q: Do you think that it was because of your concentration on these inventions and your scientific interests perhaps that you yourself never had any desire to get involved in any type of family life of your own?
Ellis: Oh no, noooo! (laughs)
Q: Did you ever contemplate marriage?
Ellis: Oh I don’t want to go into that on tape. Yes, the answer is. (laughs)
Q: But you are so much your own man. Did you ever find this to be a drawback?
Ellis: Not to me, no, not to me. My mother was the same way, apparently. She loved to go off in the woods with the dog when she lived in Texas or in Arkansas. She was a talented person in many fields — in music, architecture, writing, poetry — but she never centered her life on other people, and I perhaps inherited some of that.
Q: In your interviews you mentioned — especially when you were in India and you thought you had cholera, you described things about your body that most people would not be aware of.
Ellis: Uh, yes.
Qi Did you ever think that if you had had another turn on it, perhaps you would have wanted to go into medicine?
Ellis: Well, I could have. My interest in medicine began way back in 1930, when I bought a book called The Human Body by Dr. Logan Clendening, which was favorably reviewed, and that’s how I happened to go get it. And it fascinated me, and I have been fascinated by medical phenomenon and facts ever since. That’s part of why I am very much interested in nutrition, holistic medicine and the prevention of illness rather than the curing of it.
I make it a point to know what I am eating, and I pass the information I pick up to my friends, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. (laughs)
But I think that I may have inherited some slight tendency toward medicine from my great-grandfatèer, who was Dr. Edward Foreman in Baltimore.
Q: He was a medical doctor?
Ellis: He was a medical doctor, and he graduated from college in 1834. He later went on to the Smithsonian Institution as the fourth man on the totem pole there.
Q: You mentioned that before, yes.
Q: But you yourself had no interest in becoming a medical doctor?
Ellis: No, because from the time I was 6 I was fascinated by electricity in all its manifestations and uses. That goes back to the time when I made the acquaintance of the electric motor that drove the pump for the house we rented when we first came to Mahwah.
Q: Yes, you mentioned that.
Ellis: And that’s a fascination that I never lost.
Q: Since you are so heavily involved in environmental issues, what do you think of the future of mankind?
Ellis: Well, I think the future of mankind is involved with the basic population explosion problem. In 1939, I remember saying or thinking to myself that the population of the United States, which was then 150 million, was about optimum. Since then we’ve added 75 million more people, and many of the problems we are having today — with the environment, with illness, with mental illness — are a reflection of that increase in density of population. Everybody is getting into everybody else’s way, and the human organism never evolved under those circumstances.
The population of the earth has always allowed plenty of open space and room between people, and as things are going in the United States today — and in the world today — with the population going up three or four percent a year, we are headed for a stifling time, because the resources of the earth and the results of man’s activities simply preclude quality of life.
What we have seen in the past in China with their enormous population, and in India and other places with a similar condition, is going to happen here in the United States, unless the trend is reversed, I believe.
Of course, if some body presses the nuclear button that may solve the population problem in one fell swoop, but what a horrible, terrible solution that would be.
Q: Indeed. You have had a very interesting career, and you’ve had lots and lots of Interesting activities that you’ve engaged in. Is there anything you would have changed? Anything you would have done differently?
Ellis: Well, I don’t think that I planned my career to come out the way it has. It’s been pretty much a matter of luck here and there. I didn’t plan it this way. No, I have no regrets.
Q: That’s marvelous.
Ellis: Maybe one slight regret, and that is that I have no children, and … ha! that’s something that I think is a little late to begin on now.
Q: Well, I want to thank you very, very much for this second interview.
Ellis: You are welcome.
Q: And again may I ask you if I have your permission to use this second part of the Interview — the tape — in class.
Ellis: Yes, you do.
Q: Thank you.
End of Interview 2 w/ Charles Edwin Ellis, Jr. by Janice H. McCue April 2nd 1981.