Elmer R. Easton
Class of 1947, BS
At the very young age of 22, Elmer Easton had an exceptionally responsible job. As a mechanical engineer, his duties included insuring that one of the first atomic reactors, located at Brookhaven, New York, was fully stocked with the fluid handling inventory it needed to operate efficiently and safely. He says he wasnʼt nervous because he had survived a relevant Virginia Tech engineering course with Professor J. Lucien Jones.
“As a first-quarter sophomore in mechanical engineering (ME), I walked into Professor Jonesʼ class, engineering fundamentals, and he had some 30 “plumbing things” sitting on a table. We were supposed to write down what they were. We had no clue!” Easton laughingly recalls.
Towards the end of that academic quarter, Professor Jones arranged a class trip to the Virginia Tech Power Plant where the students, literally crawling around on their hands and knees, had to identify “things” he had shown them on that first day in the classroom. “We had to write down the serial numbers and tell how they were used. It was part of our final exam,” Easton remembers.
“Without Jonesʼ course, I could not have done the Brookhaven job despite four years of college and one year in graduate school,” the 1947 Virginia Tech honors graduate adds. This “emphasis on fundamentals” was a major lesson that Easton says he gained from his Virginia Tech educational experience, and is largely what kept the New York native linked to his alma mater ever since.
The son of a designer of high-pressure piping, Easton found his fatherʼs job fascinating, especially when it took the senior Easton to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1940s when the Manhattan Project was underway. So, the idea of studying engineering was nourished early in his life.
Until his junior year of high school, Easton attended Townsend Harris High School in New York, considered at the time to be one of the best in the United States. He enrolled in every math and physics class offered, and by the time his family moved to Hopewell, Virginia, for his senior year, Easton found he was well ahead of his peers. When he entered Virginia Tech in 1943, he recalls asking his professor on the first day if he could just take the final exam in trigonometry and skip the actual class. The professor refused his request, but Easton believes that Virginia Tech should probably be credited with later encouraging (if not forcing) the high schools in Virginia to improve their math and science education.
Easton found many ways to stay busy at Virginia Tech, writing a column for the schoolʼs newspaper, the Collegiate Times, and authoring an article on one of the engineering icons in the college, Professor Bosco Rasche of electrical engineering, for the 1947 yearbook. “I always had the inclination to write,” Easton says, “and after I was interviewed by General Electric, the company offered me a job as a technical writer. And once more, it was Prof. J.L. Jones who discouraged me from accepting the position he characterized as ʻdead end.ʼ”
Before he graduated, Eastonʼs studies were interrupted as were most of the men his age in the 1940s. As a first-quarter junior, he left Virginia Tech for a stint in the Navy, and was involved in the maintenance of all of the Navyʼs ground and ship electronics. He was stationed in Chicago, Gulfport, Mississippi, and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
Upon his return to Virginia Tech, his work in the Navy turned out to be fortuitous. “As a freshman, I had gotten mad at an upperclassman, and had thrown him in the lake, and so I got a D in military. I couldnʼt graduate until the Dean intervened. Dean Norris decided to give me an A for my work in the Navy to counteract the D,” Easton says. He was then awarded his diploma and went directly to graduate school at Columbia University in New York, where he earned his masterʼs degree in management in two semesters.
He remained in New York, and from 1948 until 1950, he worked as an engineer for Vanton Pump, a developer of specialty pumps including one for use in one of the earliest heart-lung machines for open heart surgery. In 1950, Easton moved to the Curtiss-Wright Electronics Division where he worked on the development of analog computers in flight simulators and in high-thrust engine controls.
His reputation grew, and Lear Inc., recruited him to California in 1952. Working directly with William Lear, Easton, now 25, was placed in charge of the Marketing Management Division, upgrading standard commercial aircraft to corporate jets and selling them.
Easton now dealt with “the captains of industry” selling Lear jets to such customers as the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza. As Easton attempted to sell the Shah, also a pilot, a Learstar 10-passenger corporate aircraft, he turned the keys to the cockpit over to Reza. “He flew me out of Miami and over the Atlantic. We were only 10 to 15 feet above the water. A guy from the State Department was also in the plane as we literally spun over the waves. Itʼs not as dangerous as it sounds,” Easton says, but not convincingly.
After five years of such adventures for Easton, Wyle Laboratories of Los Angeles came knocking on his door, luring him to join its marketing and general management team. At that time, 1957 to 1968, Wyle was one of the largest independent laboratories for military and civilian aerospace functional and environmental testing. For a period of time, Easton worked with yet another historical figure, Werner Von Braun, considered to be one of the greatest rocket scientists in history. They met at a test facility in Huntsville, Alabama, where NASA centered its rocket development activities. “Chris Kraft, a senior when I was a freshman, was — in effect — my customer.”
Eastonʼs career took a significant twist in 1968 when he decided to launch his own business, Compucorp. Founded before the era of Microsoft, Eastonʼs company developed, licensed, and manufactured proprietary microprocessor-based desktop computers and word processing systems. “I wanted to do my own thing and I was familiar with this technology. We built and sold hundreds of thousands of machines worldwide ... and had as many as 800 employees.”
After 17 years, Easton closed Compucorp because IBM had introduced its PC. “I did the arithmetic and it was impossible to compete with IBM. They took over the world of PCs and put a lot of companies out of business. IBM also contributed mightily to the emergence of Microsoft,” he explains.
Undaunted, Easton then opened what he calls “a little boutique” called Three D Graphics, a producer of business graphics, financial, and predictive analysis software, in 1985. “I started it by acquiring some technology that I thought was interesting and potentially exciting. I wasnʼt sure what the markets would be, but I ended up licensing the technology and still do to a number of leading business intelligence companies such as Oracle and IBM. The fun is in the development of new products.” But he cautions, “Developing software is like making movies. Most movies lose money. No one makes a movie intentionally to lose money.”
Three D Graphicsʼ latest product, a brainchild of Eastonʼs, is ACUMEN4xl, introduced in 2006. Easton conceived of the idea to produce a new suite of financial analysis software that links his proprietary modeling technology to Excel and then turned the idea over to his staff to develop. “My idea of a bright individual is one who, when given an assignment, comes up with something better than you asked for, and that has happened with ACUMEN4xl and many other times throughout my business history,” Easton says.
Semi-retired, Easton and his wife Evelyn of 50 years, live in Pacific Palisades, California. They have kept such close tabs on Virginia Tech, that from 3000 miles away, they have hosted in their home every Virginia Tech President, Vice President of Development, and Dean of the College of Engineering since the 1970s. They are members of Ut Prosim, and he has served on the College of Engineeringʼs Advisory Board.
They have two children, Allan and Lisa.
Class of: 1947
Year Inducted into Academy: 2007