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Ed AbelMythbuster: Ed Abel

Inventor, pilot, sailor, rock-hound

Date of interview: September 8, 2011

On a balmy September afternoon, with a gentle breeze blowing in off Lake Erie, and a brindle cat sashaying back-and-forth through the sitting room, inventor, pilot, sailor, rock-hound (a 10-pound meteorite sits proudly on a table in the sitting room) and lifelong Clevelander Edmund Abel shared his memories about coming of age during the Depression; his lifetime love affair with flying; and his time-tested recipe for aging well. Says Abel, "I do things at my own pace and in my own time."

When and where you were born and raised and where did you grow up?

I was born on May 12 in 1921 in Cleveland, at 8111 Madison Avenue. I was the third child, and my three sisters were born at home, too. My grandfather owned several properties and we moved — always going west — till we moved to Lakewood.

My mother was from Millersburg, Ohio, and my father was born in Foxburg, Pennsylvania, which was near one of the first golf courses in the nation. He was a caddy there for a while.

At school, what did you excel at? And what did you hate?

I graduated from West High School on Franklin Avenue and excelled in science. I liked anything to do with science, and mechanics. I was very good in mechanical drawing and in most of those courses I could have passed without even looking at the book.

At the time, I didn't like music. My grandfather was very musical and played the clarinet, and music was "in" the family, but it just wasn't what I was interested in. It stood in my way.

Growing up, who do you think had the biggest influence on you, your mother or your father? Or someone else?

It was definitely my Uncle Joe [Schoeffel], my mother's brother. He was a carpenter and contractor and built houses, and I learned a lot from him. When I was quite young—around 14—I helped him built a couple of houses. I did the electrical wiring for them and they passed inspection with no problem. He took me on fishing trips, too.

You grew up during the Depression. What was that like?

I was eight when the Depression struck. My father didn't have a job for quite a while. And I remember going to the local grocery store—Fisher Brothers—with my mother...Seventeen dollars fed the whole family for a week. We didn't have a garden then, but we should have.

Later on, when I had my own place, I got really interested in gardening.

You came of age during the height of the Depression—the mid-'30s. What role did do you think that had in shaping the person you are today?

That was in important time in my life. There were so many obstacles to overcome. Doing that [overcoming obstacles] taught me a lot about conserving and reusing things and the importance of work.

I served what you'd call an apprenticeship with my Uncle Joe and I learned a lot from him about contracting and construction and bench work. That [bench work] is what you'd call today cabinet making and fine carpentry work...I built my own tool box, of Black walnut, using cabinet-making skills.

That's when I learned how important health is, too. I kept my eyes and ears open about that, and I learned a lot from the family physician, Dr. Ballard, when he'd come to the house to take care of someone, especially my grandfather. He knew a lot about vitamins and minerals, and that was at a time when they [scientists] were just starting to do the research on what they were and how important they were. I remember him telling my mother when she cooked vegetables—especially things like spinach—not to pour the water out because that's where all the “good stuff” was.

And I learned things from my Aunt Clara, too. She studied nutrition. When she'd talk about things I'd listen — carefully.

You graduated from high school just as World War II was beginning. Did you serve in the military during WWII?

Oh yes. I was drafted into the army shortly after I graduated from high school, in 1942. And I served three-and-a-half years, getting out in late 1945.

What did you do and where did you serve?

When I went in, they gave me an aptitude test and I got really high marks, so they put me to work as an instructor of military subjects. Before I stared that, thought, they sent me to the Armed Forces Institute to teach me how to be an instructor. I took classes in the subjects I'd be teaching and things like educational psychology, too.

At first, I taught field artillery classes, then they took me out of that program and had me teaching for the signal corps. That was because someone read my service records and found out that I had a student pilot's license—I'd gotten it when I was around 16—and that one of my hobbies was building radio controlled model planes. I'd been building them for years before I went into the Army.

The Army was experimenting with drones—planes that could be targets for artillery practice—and they pulled me out of the artillery program and trained me as a crew chief to operate, maintain and fly radio-controlled planes for target practice. They trained me to pack cargo plane parachutes, too. That was because a lot of times, the gunners on the ground would miss the target, but hit the plane. Not only was it a lot safer to have someone controlling a drone on the ground than to have a pilot in a plane pulling a target, it was also a lot safer [for pilots] have a parachute that could lower their plane to the ground if it was hit.

My first assignment was at Ft. Benning [Georgia]. Later, as a crew chief, I was assigned to bases where they were doing target practice.

I went overseas, too, to Cebu, [an island] in the Philippines: I remember landing on a black sand beach. But the action there was pretty much over. We were bringing in a few Japanese prisoners, but the atomic bombs (dropped in August of 1945) had ended the war. The only thing that happened to me there was that I got dysentery and was in the hospital for nine days.

You said you had a pilot's license. When did you take up flying?

I had always been crazy about planes, and I snuck into the Cleveland National Air Races in 1937 because we didn't have money for tickets.

I got my student license by taking classes at the Brooklyn Airport, where there were mostly small two-and four-seater planes. At first I saved my money and would go out to the airport and pay for rides. Then I decided to get a student pilot license and I worked to pay for instruction. Then, after the war, I got my private pilot's license and then my commercial pilot's license.

For a short period of time I owned a plane—an early Piper craft, made around 1935—but it got too expensive to keep up.

How do you think your military experience shaped who you are today? Or do you think it did?

When I was being discharged, they really tried to get me to re-enlist—they'd spent a lot of money training me—but I didn't like the army, at all, so I didn't even think about re-enlisting.

Then what did you do when you came home from the war in 1945?

For a short time I got a job at a local company doing woodworking. Then, using the GI Bill, I went for aeronautical training at AeroWays. They had originally been a small outfit that did charter work, then they took over a [flight] training program. It was a good program and took about two-and-a-half years. In the program I learned about aircraft engines, meteorology, and all the subjects related to aviation. And I got my private and commercial pilot's license, too.

When you went to the aeronautical school, were you planning on being an airline pilot?

In a way, yes, but not the kind of pilot you're thinking of. I wasn't really that enthusiastic about becoming a commercial pilot, doing taxi cab [airline] flying, I was more interested in sport aviation. I'd attend all the fly-ins I could, all over the US, so that I could see, and fly, antique aircraft. And I joined the Experimental Aircraft Association, too.

You could make a living—support yourself—in sports aviation?

Not really. So I used my pilot's license to fly as co-pilot for a company that delivered auto parts all over the country. These were cargo flights. But I only did that for a short time because eventually I got into engineering. With my background in woodworking and my military training and crew management experience I eventually became a woodworking engineer, and project manager, for the Cadillac Tank Plant, which was doing tank work out at the airport.

When they found out about the knowledge and background in plastics I'd gained during the war, they put me in charge of tooling [designing and producing] light-weight plastic parts for tanks. At that time, plastic was a new material and we were all trying to figure out how to use it, where to use it, when to use it.

That [the work with plastics] led to another position with the Heil Process Equipment Company, which was making chemical-proof equipment using similar materials—fiberglass and epoxy. For that company, we made all kinds of hoods, plating tanks and ductwork: some of those ducts were so big you could walk through them...That's when I became a member of the Plastics Engineering Society.

You are recognized as the inventor of, and have the patent for, the water heating system that helped make the Cleveland-based Mr. Coffee the top-selling coffee making system for at least a decade. How did you come to do that?

That came about when I was working for National Engineering Service, here in Cleveland. The owner bought Barth Corporation in Brookpark, which made all kinds of manufacturing machinery, and one of my jobs was to troubleshoot at Barth. When they couldn't figure something out, I'd go out and help them solve the problem.

Pretty soon, they [NES] were sending me out—under contract—to do troubleshooting at other places...One day I was sent out to North American Systems [then a coffee delivery service], because [the co-owner] Vincent Marotta wanted someone to design a new kind of coffee maker. I actually designed the prototype model for the first system [MC1] in my basement workshop. I built it out of plastic and wood, and it looked just like the real thing, but it didn't work. When they took it to the Chicago Housewares Show, it was an instant hit.

[Laughs] While they were showing that [prototype] at the show, I was working on the mechanical parts in the coffee maker that would cause the rapid heating [up to 200 degrees] of the water so coffee could be rapidly brewed...I hold the patent for the [water] heating element, but I signed the rights for use over to NAS [and the company began producing Mr. Coffee coffeemakers in 1972].

You have many other patents registered under your name. Were any of them as financially successful as the water heating system for Mr. Coffee?

Not really, but they were still good inventions...One time I was contracted to Leece-Neville, a company that made parts for off-road vehicles. They wanted me to improve window shield wipers so they could deal with the adverse conditions in off-road driving-mud, dust, things like that. I went home and that night, in my basement workshop, I built a device that solved their problem and brought it in the next morning. It had everything: switch, battery, wiper blades. While I was the inventor, they held the rights, not me, because I was working for them.

What do you think it is about you, personally, that made you so successful?

I'm stubborn. I just don't give up...It's almost like I can see around a corner, and when I know something can be done, I do what it takes to prove that it can be done.

I'm always thinking, always looking for ways to improve upon something. That's part of my nature. In chess, you are always thinking, four, five, six moves ahead. And that's how I think. It's always been how I think.

When did you retire? Or have you?

My last employer was National Engineering Service. I was with them for 17 years, going out and doing troubleshooting all over the US. I left there in the 1970s and became self-employed and did trouble-shooting and contract work, but it was mostly for companies, rather than individuals.

So...when did you really retire?

That wasn't too far back. Maybe five years ago I realized I'm slipping my gears and shouldn't be designing things. That's when I "retired."

At 90, you live on your own in a riverside cottage...

Yes, and I was very wise in buying the property when it didn't have that much value. That was around 1975. It's on a wide lot and on the waterfront and when it came up for sale— it used to belong to the people across the street—I scooped it up. [Chuckles] It's probably the best investment I've ever made. They aren't making lots like this anymore. the question is, where do you get the energy to remain on your own and live independently?

I like living on my own because I have control of things. I do things at my own pace and in my own time. And I'm healthy enough—my eyes are good and so is my hearing—to make it work.

I've studied nutrition for a long time—every since I was a boy, really—and [pointing to a well-thumbed copy of The New Optimum Nutrition Bible, by Patrick Holford] I eat well, even if I have to make it myself. And I always have. [Chuckles] I never eat white bread.

I think prevention is important, too, so I take a variety of supplements, to improve circulation, for eye health, for a variety of things. My brother-in-law used to say it was foolish to take all that "stuff." He's gone. I'm still here.

You are sharp mentally. What are you doing to stay so mentally fit?

That's never been a problem. My mind is always working...That's just the way I am. In fact, sometimes, because it's turning and churning, I have trouble falling asleep at night. I think that's because I've over-exercised my brain during the day. But that's probably a good thing: it keeps the circulation going.

Myth Busters is all about aging smart, aging successfully. What do you think people need to be doing—physically, mentally and emotionally—to do that? In other words, what are Ed Abel's tips for aging well?

I think you have to enjoy doing what you are doing and being alive.

You have to be adaptable and modify things as your circumstances change. And you have to have to know when it's time to make those modifications. I call that quitting while you are ahead.

You have to plan to be healthy, too. I drink, and cook, with purified water that I buy at Nature's Bin, not the stuff that comes out of the taps. I follow a nutrition plan that keeps me healthy. And I practice prevention—use tactics and strategies—that help me stay healthy. I did have an accident last winter. I was tying up my boat and fell between the dock and the boat and really hurt my neck and that's put a limit on some of my activities, but I'm coming back from that.mythbusters

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Ed Abel passed away on April 21, 2014 at the age of 92.