Eric Denton and his wife Ruth Denton in their Burien home where they have lived for the last 66 years. Eric is a 2014 Diamond Award winner from the University of Washington.
Burien Man to be given Diamond Award
Getting to know the local winner of the UW’s 2014 Diamond Award for Achievement in Industry
By Tim Clifford
“My mother was always telling me to be independent and then she would tell me this one line “Never give up ‘tis a secret of glory”. Well, I never quite knew what that meant but I knew the first line well” explains Eric Denton, age 92, of what has driven him throughout his life in every endeavor he has undertaken. On Thursday June 6 the University of Washington will honor Denton with the Diamond Award in Achievement in Industry for one such endeavor he undertook in the sawmill and lumber industry in the late 1960’s.
“Eric stood out for both his technical skill and leadership. He revolutionized the sawmill process by introducing new technology and persisted in the face of immense difficulties to change a traditional industry. That is a unique skillset” explains Michael Bragg, the Dean of the Engineering department at the University of Washington, of why the school chose to honor Denton with the Diamond Award.
It is clear from Denton’s biography that even before his noted work facing struggles and overcoming them has always been his nature.
Denton’s first attendance at the University of Washington was interrupted when he was commissioned by ROTC and led a weapons platoon through France during World War II, fighting in what would be known as “the Little Bulge”. Denton says of his time during the war “in retrospect it was pretty good training and I grew up pretty fast”. After staying in Europe for a year to guard German prisoners of war Denton decided to return to the states and continue his education at the UW.
Once back in the states and back in college, pursuing a Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering, Denton met his wife Ruth (his “beautiful wife” as he continues to describe her after all these years) while she was studying nursing. Residents of Burien for 66 years they raised their 3 children (Bruce, Cathryn and Steve) while finishing out their respective educations.
After graduating Denton was hired by the Monsanto Company and was an important player in developing a plant in Seattle that could convert paper mill waste into artificial vanilla. At one point this plant was producing enough vanilla to flavor all of the ice cream in the country. This impressive success, right out of college, would be a big part of his eventual hiring by Weyerhaeuser which would lead to the innovation that he is now being recognized for.
To fully appreciate the significance of the technology that Denton introduced to sawmills one must understand the state of both the lumber industry in the late 60’s.
Timber as it comes down the conveyor belt at sawmills is never in the “perfect” circular log shape that comes to mind thanks to cartoons or Lincoln logs. Tapering from skinny to wide, often exhibiting some sort of knot growth or bumps from branches, these logs were often misshaped and needed to be cut to shape to be evenly divided into whatever size of boards the mills were hoping to achieve.
This is where Denton came up with a new process that would reduce waste and bump up board production. Setting up an apparatus of light array cameras on the conveyor line before the timber met up with the cutting saws this device would scan the “sweep” or curvature of the logs and calculate the positions for the best cuts to be made.
“The way they used to do it was they would lay the logs on the ground and go through and hand measure how much wood was in them, called “sample scaling”…and they were using “board feet”, which is an elastic number and I quickly realized they needed to use cubic feet” explains Denton of the need to accurately measure the volume of each log.
Computer technology at this time was also a new idea for most industries. Computers commonly took up entire rooms for companies that had them and the name “Silicon Valley” did not yet hold the clout that it would just a few decades later. Denton’s scanning apparatus was cutting edge and according to him his “specifications were pretty demanding”. Though his proposal had received bids from other companies it was a startup out of Silicon Valley called Atmospheric Sciences that called in for a chance to bid at the last minute and offered the highest tech option to create his device.
“So much of this business of success is tied into just blind luck” says Denton of this last minute bid and their offer to use “mini computers” which in 1970 were as cutting edge as computer technology got.
Atmospheric Sciences was able to bring Denton’s device to life from the blue prints that he and his partners created and eventually patented. Using two cameras that are pointed at the log as it passes under them (linear array cameras) and lights to shine on the log as the pictures are taken these scans would then be sent to PDP-8 mini-computers and the center of the log and its volume would be calculated. These calculations would decide where the best positions on the log for cuts were and the saws or “chip heads” could be adjusted down the line accordingly. This device would eventually automate the whole process of adjusting the saws and working with the tapering of the logs.
Now to be sure, problems would spring up right and left in the beginning. There was the family of mice that made a home in one of the mini-computers and eventually destroyed it with their clutter. There were also unforeseen challenges to meet such as the effect of the vibrations from the sawmills operations on the machines. “I had never been inside a sawmill in my life before Weyerhaeuser hired me, so it was all very eye opening” says Denton as he explains having to use inflatable motorbike tires or “intertubes” to cushion the computers inside their phone booth sized housings and protect them from being rattled into oblivion. Additionally, there was resistance from the workers themselves as this sort of change meant a closer eye from the “big wigs” on all operations.
But it would also yield nearly immediate monetary results for the companies that used this apparatus on their lines within the first year. While Denton couldn’t remember exact figures according to the UW’s website “Weyerhaeuser’s investment of $30,000 for Eric’s scanner resulted in close to a million dollar gain per machine each year”. It is no surprise that this would soon become the standard for sawmills operation following 1970. What is surprising is how little has changed since these devices were first implemented.
Though Denton is being recognized for his achievements in this one industry at this time there is not enough room on the page to go into detail on his many other endeavors. But suffice to say that Denton’s life has shown that problem solving and innovation have always had a casual place in the core of his character.
“Something like this really makes you wonder who the heck you are and how you got to be such a nut” Denton jokingly muses about his selection for the award as he looks at a picture tacked to the wall. It is a cartoon of a bird attempting to swallow a frog that is clearly too large for its gullet. Above the picture in bold letters are the words “Don’t ever give up”.
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