Usually people associate machine shops with noise and bright lights, with clanking machines run by craftsmen in coveralls, googles and steel toed shoes. The thing that I remember best about the physics shop at the University of Maryland is the smell. It was an oily scent but surprisingly pleasant, refined, like 3-in-1 oil, an ambience redolent of well-cared-for tools, and machine parts stowed in their proper places.
In 1971, physics shop was one of those places that we women did not go. Naturally, I wanted in. I was a beginning physics grad student, one of only three women in a class of one hundred. Except for some ad-hoc childhood instruction in my dad’s home shop, I’d never studied how to use tools and build things. Even high school shop had been off-limits –girls were shunted to “home economics.” I might need shop skills to make complicated instruments. I was thrilled when I saw “Physics Shop” in the course catalog.
Maryland had no formal pre-reqs for Physics Shop class, and I had no trouble registering, but getting through the door turned out to be harder than I anticipated. On the first day of class our teacher, Mr. Elvin McCargill met me at the shop door. Four other students, all guys, waited inside. I recognized them as fellow second-year physics grad students. Mr. McGargill was stocky with an overgrown, greying crew cut that made him look like a hedgehog. A burly former Navy master machinist, he took up the whole doorway. He looked me over, scowling and his lower lip began to protrude. “Yes?” he said. “Can I do something for you?”
“I’m here for the Physics Shop class,” I said; “I should be on your list. My name is Joan. Joan Ogden.”
McCargill scanned down the pre-printed roster of students, moving his right index finger under each name, leaving an oily spot where he gripped the paper. “Yeah, I see you. Right there.” He looked up again; “You got permission to take this class?”
“Um, no. I didn’t know I needed permission. In the catalog, it said anyone who was a junior or above could take it.”
“Yeah. With permission. Permission of the instructor. That’s me!” McCargill paused a minute, squinted and tried another tack. “You can’t come in here with that hair. You’ve gotta know that.”
Actually, I didn’t know; “My hair?”
“That long hair of yours. It could get tangled in the machinery. Hoo-eee, wouldn’t that be a mess!”
“I have a hair band, sir. I’ll just put my hair up. I promise it won’t get in the way.”
“Hmmmm. Uh-uh. I don’t think so. Nope. Can’t have it in here.”
“But I’ve already registered for the class.”
“Well, Miss Odge-din,” he said stumbling over my name, “You’ll need to get a letter from the physics department saying that you positively need to take this course.” With that McCargill closed the door in my face, and started chatting with the four male students waiting by the machines.
I was disappointed and a little mad, and immediately sought out our ever-resourceful grad student advisor Mrs. Dillon. If anyone could help me, she could! I explained the situation and she sighed, “I don’t think any of our other girl students have ever taken the shop class. Elvin is a bit old-fashioned about his shop,” she confided; “He thinks women shouldn’t be on ships either.”
This wasn’t much consolation. “Mr. McCargill told me I need a letter from the physics department saying I need to take shop. Is there anyone who could write me a letter?”
Mrs. Dillon hesitated, and didn’t speak for a moment. “Well, there is Professor Drake.”
I felt a thrill of excitement. Professor Drake was my academic advisor. He was also my idea of the ultimate badass, a theoretical physicist, who was tall, lean, and handsome, with an intriguing touch of grey at the temples. I had a bit of a school girl crush on Professor Drake, and it rendered me nearly speechless in his presence. But talking to him was clearly my only path to enter the sacred precincts of the physics shop. Mrs. Dillon smiled at me, “Just wait here a minute, dear. I’ll see if I can catch Professor Drake before lunch.”
Mrs. Dillon was gone an awfully long time. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, after all. I was contemplating fleeing, when Mrs. Dillon reappeared, “You can go on through now.”
Professor Drake’s office door had a rippled glass window reinforced with wire mesh. The words “Department Chair,” were emblazoned in worn gold leaf. I could see him sitting inside at a large wooden desk. I knocked and opened the door, terrified and dazzled. “Hello, Miss Ogden,” said my idol; “I understand that you want to take physics shop class.”
“This has created a bit of a stir, you see. None of our girl students have ever taken shop before.” He paused to let that sink in; “Can you tell me why you want to take shop?”
“Well, I can use a hammer and screwdriver alright, but I don’t know how to run machines. I might want to be an experimental physicist someday, and I’ll need to make instruments in the shop.” I trailed off, finishing quietly with, “I just want to learn how.”
Drake paused, pondering for what seemed like a long time. “I find I agree with you Miss Ogden. I think it’s high time our women students take shop if they want to. You’ll have your letter this afternoon.”
I walked out in a joyful daze. That afternoon Mrs. Dillon met me coming out of Advanced Quantum, and handed me a sealed envelope, embossed with physics department logo. “Take this letter to Mr. McCargill. And let me know if Elvin says anything about it.”
I ran to the shop, and knocked on the door. Mr. McCargill looked surprised to see me back again, but showed some respect when I handed him the letter from Professor Drake. The chain of command remained part of his code. He opened it carefully and read to himself.
“Hmph! Professor Drake says here that I should let you in because you want to ‘conquer the fear of things mechanical often imputed to women.’ Is that right?”
“Yes sir.” Close enough, I thought.
“Alright then, come to class tomorrow with the others. And be sure you tie your hair back.”
I went on to learn the secrets of drill presses, milling machines and lathes, as well as band saws and table saws. I made things out of metal, plastic and wood. And I made a friend of Mr. McCargill. He liked that my Uncle had been in the Navy in World War II, just like him. And we shared a love of country music. McCargill had built his own pedal steel guitar and played with a local band. I was old enough to drink now, and used to come see them play.
Dr. Joan Ogden is Professor Emerita at the University of California, Davis. She holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Maryland and is author of over 100 technical papers and two books on alternative energy.