Each year, Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) honors outstanding contributors to our field with the International Award. Recently, such men as Alan MacDiarmid (Nobel Laureate), Chris Macosko, Glenn Beall, and Greg McKenna, among others were so recognized. Well forty or so years ago, the International Award was bestowed on an equally illustrious group. There were Paul Flory (Nobel ), Herman Mark, Gulio Natta (Nobel), Arthur Tobolsky, Charles Overberger, (later ACS president), and Turner Alfrey, to pick out a few. During the '40s to the '60s,the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now Polytechnic Institute of New York) was a center of polymer/plastics activity. Herman Mark, before Hitler an I.G. Farbenindustrie research director, headed up PIB's Polymer Institute. He drew Alfrey, Overberger, and Tobolsky to the Institute's staff. I was fortunate enough to be a student under these three men, and to spend more than a few evenings after class having a beer or two with them in a bar conveniently across the street from PIB. It's about Turner Alfrey that I want to write. Six feet four and - as he described himself: chest 46", waist 46", hips 46" - he was a giant happy dynamo. Then in his twenties, he had solved the co-polymerization composition equation, which had puzzled investigators for a number of years. And he had written a very successful book, "The Mechanical Behavior of High Polymers," in which much of the performance of plastics materials described was his own work. In class, he would lecture striding back and forth in front of us with a cigarette in his mouth that he had bummed from packs the front row students learned to keep out on our desks. He was marvelously adroit at describing physical phenomena with his hands. To see him demonstrate a spring vibrating in two separate simultaneous frequencies was to ingrain it more than the mathematical equations alone ever could. And he always appeared as if he was imparting a delicious secret to us, with a broad grin and arms waving. He could have made a successful used car salesman. The imparting-a-secret grin pervaded everything he did, and he would just as soon go out of his way a mile to trick someone out of a dollar than to win it from him in a straightforward manner. He liked to take someone with him when he went to cash a check from home. "They won't let me withdraw any of this for three days".
He'd confide "Sure they will". The innocent would say. "They quit that several years ago." "No they won't," Turner would answer. "Bet you a dollar they won't." The bet made, the two would go into the bank. When Turner pushed his check into the teller's cage, the first thing the teller would say was "Of course you know we can't let you withdraw any of this for three days". What Turner had neglected to tell his companion was that "home" was in Kansas, and the bank held up out of state checks for that period. He never picked on students with his one-upmanship, though. He always liked to contend with a colleague, someone who knew him and felt they could beat him at his game. So it was with the case of the ten thousand beers.
In the aforementioned bar across the street, there was a coin operated facts-testing machine. It tested the player's knowledge and at three levels: Easy, Medium, or Advanced. The staff at Brooklyn Poly played the game frequently, and on the afternoon in question, Turner was playing at the Advanced level with Bob Mesrobian, a post-doc from Princeton, and for ten beers. As they played, Turner noticed that if he stood just so, he could see enough of the answer card to learn it. He thoughtfully lost the game to Dr. Mesrobian, and consequently owed him ten beers. After that they went back to their offices. No more than a half hour later, Mesrobian showed up at Alfrey's office "Hey Turner."
"Want to play another round of the game, get a chance to win back the ten beers you're down?"
"Gee, no, Bob. I've got a paper to finish, and I've got some lab notes to work up for it."
"Are you sure it isn't just that you think I'm too good for you?"
"You're a dreamer. It's just that I'm busy, and besides we just played a little while ago."
"How about if we made the bet a hundred beers?"
"Not if we made it ten thousand beers. I can't fathom why you're so eager to play, anyway. You know I'm the better player. I just can't spare the time right now."
"Better player! You can't even tie me! And for ten thousand beers, if that's the way you want it." With an air of reluctant exasperation, Alfrey allowed Mesrobian to persuade him to play for ten thousand beers, with Turner to win if he tied. Because Bob Mesrobian knew that no one ever got all the answers right at the Advanced level. So they played. They tied with perfect scores. And Mesrobian owed Alfrey ten thousand beers.Of course ten thousand beers was way beyond the ability of lowly faculty members or post-docs to pay, so for years Turner made much of recounting this story to all and sundry, telling how the country boy from Kansas outsmarted the big city slicker. Since he refused all Mesrobian's attempts at a negotiated settlement, he could always end up with, " And he still owes me ten thousand beers!"
Now fast forward a decade or so. Turner has become an honored research executive at Dow Chemical, and Bob Mesrobian heads up American Can's resin research operations.
It's 2:00 AM in Midland. Turner is wakened by a phone call. "Turner, It's Bob Mesrobian."
"Well, Turner, we've been developing a new can lining for beer cans, and we used it to line a tank car of beer. Something went wrong with the lining resin and we have more than ten thousand cans' worth of bad, bad beer in the tank car. The company is willing to send the tank car anywhere I want, just so we get rid of it. So unless you declare the bet paid in full right now, by next Thursday you're going to have a tank car of bad, bad beer delivered to your attention in Dow's siding." After that, they both could tell the story of the ten thousand beers, with a new ending.
Mr. Smith holds Bachelor's in Chemistry from Gettysburg. Trained at Brooklyn, Poly in Organic & Polymer chemistry. Worked for IBM over a quarter century. Has been SPE President (1984), helped found SPE's Polymer Analysis Div. (PAD) and New Technology Committee (NTC). In George's words "Since then, I have been variously Councilor, Committee member, and general utilty infielder for SPE"