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  4. This tinkerer went from a machine shop to helping NASA launch its moonshot mission
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  • This tinkerer went from a machine shop to helping NASA launch its moonshot mission

    By Sue Casement, 3M Storyteller and Eliot Popko, 3M Videographer

    Retired 3M engineer Bob Elm displays some of his tools and inventions

    Bob Elm calls himself a professional tinkerer.

    He credits his success as an engineer to his love of making things and to being persistent.

    • Bob Elm served in the Navy during World War II
      Bob Elm served in the Navy during World War II

      His career accomplishments include creating electrical wire connector solutions and standards, and helping develop a generator that powered the Apollo 12 program for NASA. Bob has always been interested in tools and how things work. One of his earliest memories is getting a tricycle for Christmas. The first thing he did was crawl under it to “fix” it – the way he saw his dad and uncle fixing the family Model T. An early invention was home-made skis from rain barrel staves that he nailed to a pair of his brother’s old shoes.

      Bob grew up in a small Minnesota town and moved with his family to the east side of St. Paul when he was a teen. There, he attended a vocational school, studying to be a machinist and graduated as valedictorian. He worked part time at a local machine shop where he made parts, dies and molds. When he finished high school, it was 1945, and Bob was drafted into the Navy on a destroyer sweeping for mines. The construction of the ship and the inner workings of its steam engine, turbine, boiler and sonar amazed Bob. And though he understood the physics, he still found it fascinating that this giant chunk of iron could float. He assisted in the maintenance of communication and radar equipment.

      After returning home, he took advantage of the GI Bill and studied mechanical engineering. His schooling was interrupted by another stint in the military for the Korean War, but he was discharged before his brigade was deployed overseas. After finishing his degree, Bob found his way to 3M, where he worked on 3M Scotchlok Wire Connectors.

    “I can’t leave something undone. Unfinished bothers me.” - Retired 3M engineer Bob Elm

    • 3M Scotchlok Wire Connector, displayed on its historic packaging

      Much of Bob’s career was focused on the growing business of electrical connectors in the electrical construction and maintenance field, but one memorable project led him to work with NASA and meet with President Dwight Eisenhower. In the late 1960s, NASA was planning its moonshot and needed an atomic battery to power a transmitter. Bob designed a prototype and was an inventor on the 3M patent for this device called a “SNAP III” – or Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power. This thermo-electric generator marked 3M’s earliest involvement in the U.S. Space Program.

      Shortly after his retirement, Bob was honored with 3M’s lifetime achievement award for inventors – the Carlton Society Award.

      “I just like to make things,” he says. “Between my hands and my persistence and the help of 3M, we succeeded.”

      Learn more about Bob’s career, his work on the atomic battery and the historic meeting with President Eisenhower, below.

    Bob Elm, retired 3M engineer and Carlton Society Awardee