Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

Engineer by Mail: John Whisnant’s Early Years at American Enka, 1933-1941

NOTE TO READERS: This is the fourth in a series of posts on the coming of the American Enka Corporation plant to Buncombe County’s Hominy Valley in 1928, where it operated until recently. The first three in the series are:

A New Vision for Old Hominy Valley: The Coming of the American Enka Plant

“The Best and Most Prosperous City”: American Enka and the Imagined Transformation of Asheville

Enka Builds a Labor Force: The Magic of Native-Born Mountain Workers

Because others of my more than 30 previous posts  also provide background for this one at some points, I include links to them here (including in the footnotes) where that would be helpful.

This present post focuses on my father’s first eight years (beginning at age 19) at American Enka (1933-1941) until — after several years of engineering training through International Correspondence Schools — he moved from the Printing Department into the Mechanical Research Department in 1941.  That move led to several decades of engineering practice and management at Enka and several other synthetic fiber companies, which will be the subject of a later post.

Along the way I pay particular attention to his autodidactic (self-teaching) approach to learning — in printing before he went to Enka, in radio both before and after — and his subsequent route through the International Correspondence Schools into professional engineering.  It was not the most preferred route at the time (some more fortunate than he had better ones), but it had deep roots, and for him it worked.


When Did He Go to Enka — and How Did I Get It Wrong the First Time?

In my previous three posts (listed above) on the coming of American Enka to Buncombe County’s Hominy Valley in 1928 and some others, I had occasion to write about parts of my father’s life. From growing up in the family, I knew that his going to work at Enka was a crucial juncture for him (and us).

12 Crescent Street in the Enka village, ca. 1942, where we lived for about 16 years. Family Collection.

When I finished my third post on American Enka, I was still uncertain, however, about when he went there, or when the family moved from West Asheville to the Enka village. My own earliest memories come from 12 Crescent Street in the employee village.

Piecing together fragments from Asheville city directories, I learned that in 1932 (when he was one year out of high school), my father was still living with his parents on Brownwood Avenue in West Asheville. For some months around that time, he operated his own printing business.1

Because of the Depression there appear to have been no directories for 1933 or 1934, but the 1935 directory included a separate Enka section of about 600 names, about half of whom were Enka employees, with addresses in Asheville, West Asheville, the Enka village and the surrounding area.  Neither the Enka nor the general section listed John and Mary Whisnant.2

In 1936 they were listed at a West Asheville address, and he was a employed as a cl[er]k, but no place of employment was given.  Taken together, the directories show that they lived at 3 West Asheville addresses at least until late 1940 or early 1941 (when they disappeared from the list).

By then he was about 26, and she was about 24.  They had married in August 1934, and had three young children.3

The 1937 directory listed him as “printer Am Enka Corp”, but in 1938  he was generically a “rayon wkr Am Enka Corp,” and even more generically in 1939 as “emp[loyed] Am Enka Corp.”  In 1940 and 1941 (the last listing) he was again “printer Am Enka Corp.”  The sequence was somewhat murky at best, but it seemed probable that he got a job at Enka about 1937, and that we moved to the Enka village some time in 1940 or 1941.

JKW Engineering 1950But it turns out that I was wrong, as I learned much later when I encountered this photo and caption in the Enka Voice employee magazine for November 1950.  It said that he had been “employed at Enka for 17 years” (since 1933, then, not 1937), that his first job was in the Printing Department, that he “transferred to Mechanical Research” in 1941, and by 1950 was in “the Engineering Section of the Research Department.”4

This emerging fact of timing required me to revise my carefully teased-out timeline of a decade (1931-1941) of my father’s life: He had started working at Enka when he was only about 19, not 23 or 24 (before, rather than after, he married in August 1934).  By then, had been there for some months  (maybe as much as 2 years) before an unplanned child arrived in early 1935.

JKW annual 1931 SMALL

John Whisnant, senior year photo, Asheville High School yearbook, The Hillbilly, 1931.

John Whisnant as Manager of the Enka Printing Department. Family Collection. Likely taken for an Enka Voice article on the department, but I have not encountered it. Compared to the one at left, the photo suggests that it was probably taken closer to 1941 than 1933.

In any case, by the time we moved to 12 Crescent Street in the village in 1941, he had been driving a 1934 Plymouth (or sharing rides) from West Asheville to Enka for upwards of 8 years, working in (and then managing) the Printing Department.

What is incontrovertible is that he spent much of his early years at Enka working to gain the knowledge and skills he needed to move out of printing and into engineering.  How did he manage to do that?

Long Before the Internet: Teaching Yourself . . .  and Learning By Mail

As I have slowly come to understand, four important factors enabled my father to do what he did.

Throughout his life (or at least the parts of it I know anything about), he was a persistent, determined and (as it generally turned out) successful autodidact.

Beginning sometime during his early months at Enka, he had a strong and dedicated wife to whom fell–in those distinctly-gendered times — almost all of the domestic tasks and childcare, leaving him mostly free to work in his “day job,” and outside of that in radio.5

Having obtained a job at Enka during the early years of the Depression, he and his family were spared the turmoil and dislocation that so many other workers and families suffered during that period.

For a number of years (at least during the 1930s, but perhaps earlier and/or later) he took advantage of a then-available, mass-marketed form of post-secondary professional education.

On Being an Autodidact

John’s autodidactic approach to learning was strongly in evidence (mainly in radio) by his early teens, during late high school and afterwards in printing, and from his early twenties through most of the rest of his life in engineering.

As the generic term that it is (self-taught), autodidact has meant many things to many people, in many sectors of learning, within many historic periods.6 My limited task here  is to elucidate what it meant to — and how it functioned for — John Whisnant from his early teens in the mid-1920s to the end of his life, but especially during his working life at American Enka (1933-ca. 1960) and beyond.7

His autodidactic orientation seems to have derived largely from his temperament, intellect and imagination.  He was configured and oriented that way, seemingly from his whole inner being. It structured his view of the world, his

Small (6″ w x 7″ d x 9″ h) metal “Army salvage” box filled with small screws and nuts, connectors, pins, O-rings, and washers of all sizes, which he searched through many times (as I have during the 20+ years since it came to me). Probably late 1940s. Photo by David Whisnant.


Small tool chest made from wooden apple crate, with partitioned drawers and cheap plastic handles, ca. 1945? Photo by Richard A. Whisnant.

understanding of and approach to problems and challenging situations, his building and maintenance of his workshop at home (when, after some years, he had a place for one), his buying and use of tools, his ability to imagine and create what engineers would call “jigs and fixtures” to do one job or another. And always, his boxes, jars, and drawers of fasteners, spare parts, and things “I might need sometime.”

In any case, his modest family circumstances were not promising with regard to the goal of going to college.8

By 1923 his parents were able to buy a small house and lot in West Asheville.9 There they weathered the calamitous Asheville crash of November 1930 that came six months before his high school years ended, and the Depression that followed. It seems likely that that whole family and socioeconomic history predisposed John toward self-directed learning.

Predisposed, but not necessarily forced, it seems.  I do not recall ever hearing him say that he had wanted, like Mary Neal Rudisill, to go to college after high school, or had seriously considered doing so.10


Logo of American Radio Relay League (1914)

To a considerable degree, I think, the flourishing of amateur radio at about the time he was born (1914) was predictive. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) appeared that year, and the amateur radio journal QST about the same time.  Not long after that, when he was maybe 10 years old, young John began reading and learning about radio, associating with and learning from aspiring young “operators,” and building simple sending and receiving equipment.11

In radio he became, that is, what many years later another generation (with a new technology) called a “geek.”  And that involvement had many of the characteristics and effects of “higher” education: exploring emerging knowledge, acquiring new vocabulary and learning new skills, forming social/cultural/intellectual networks, and exploring one’s passions to learn.

As the years passed, he became ever more intensely involved in amateur radio. By 1935, at age 21, he had joined the National Guard, and was serving in the local (based in Canton NC, about 12 miles west of Enka) 30th Signal Company of North Carolina’s 30th Division.  “Signal” by that time would in practice likely have meant primarily “radio communications.”



JKW National Guard 1935

John Whisnant is 6th from left in front row. Family collection. Some digital gremlin limits the size of this panoramic image here.  Click for a much larger image, then click again to scroll. I have been able to find no other information on my father in the Guard. He never spoke of it later that I recall, and I have been able to find no roster, unit description, or other information about the 30th Signal Company.  At least one other Enka employee is in the group (Superintendent of Police Frank Conder, 5th from L, back row), and there were likely others.

In 1939, at age 25, he served as President of the 400 hundred-member Asheville Amateur Radio Club.

Hamfest banquet 1939

Asheville Amateur Radio Club “Hamfest” banquet, 1939. John K. Whisnant, President. Click to enlarge. Photographer unknown. Family collection.

And what, in a functional sense, did being an autodidact mean for him? It meant that he felt a constant need to know, and had a basic confidence that he could learn (and learn to do) something (whatever it was) by himself, without taking a class or getting a certificate.  It seems to have meant that for him every moment was a (self-)teachable moment.  It meant that he loved tools, learned how each one of them worked and what it was good for, took care of them, and made — or imagined your way around — those you needed but couldn’t afford. And in a broader (but still autodidactic) sense, it meant that everyone around him was a potential teacher whom he watched, asked questions, and respected for what they knew — “educated” or “credentialed” in the conventional sense or not.

American Boy sasw

Henry Disston & Sons’ “American Boy” saw.  Sears, Roebuck Catalog (1903), p. 698.

That this mode of learning often was also intra-familial and inter-generational I can attest from having grown up as John’s son.  When my grandfather Asbury moved from a farm in Rutherford County to Asheville in 1900 (see earlier post Our Mountain Home: Asbury’s Encounter with a Changing Asheville, 1900-1907), he made a fitted wooden chest for his woodworking tools and took them with him.

Twenty or so years later, Asbury bought a matching Henry Disston & Sons “American Boy” saw for his son John, perhaps from Sears Roebuck (see section 2 of The Land of the Sky at the End of the Line: Asbury and Ella).

For Christmas 1946, my father designed (and paid a neighbor who was a welder to make the frame for) a workbench  for his own young  (3, 7, 8 and 11 y.o.) sons, and started teaching us to use his tools.


Bench with welded steel frame, center drawer and adjustable work light. L to R: Norman (1939), David (1938), Richard (1935) and John, Jr. (1943).

And he knew so much that I felt myself wanting to know.  While still in my single-digit years, I learned the uses of (and the differences between) many types of wrenches (crescent, “monkey,” open-end, stilson, socket and setscrew); pliers (channel locks, needle nose, vice grips and wire cutters). I knew what a micrometer was (and was used for), that a flat screwdriver wouldn’t work with phillips head screws (“take that back and bring me what I told you to get!”), that screws and nuts could be right- or left-handed, that steel washers would rust but brass would not. From standing beside him while he rewound a transformer, I can still smell bakelite and glyptol.

And a bit later, I stood on a low stool while he taught me the parts and controls of the small South Bend metal lathe he installed on a bench in his small basement shop  (headstock, chuck, bed and ways, cross-feed, tool post, tailstock), and helped me learn to run it.

South Bend lathe ca. 1940-1945, with 9-inch swing. 3-step cone pulley–driven with flat belt; no gearbox. Non-universal chuck. Carriage and (I think also) cross-feed were motor driven. Tail stock, top (compound) carrier and tool post were manually positioned and controlled. Total length about 48 in.

Many of his tools, and a few of my grandfather’s as well, eventually came to me.  And toward the latter end of the more than 100 years since the American Boy saw was bought, and of the 60 since the workbench appeared beside the Christmas tree, I was helping my own sons learn how to use those tools (and many others).

Evan (10 y.o.) at same task

Derek (8 y.o.) at workbench sanding 2″ cherry panel for half-wall in house.

When I worked with them, my voice sounded (to me, at least) eerily like my father’s, and my way of holding and using tools (completely unintentionally) like his.

By their early teens, both boys had had several years of experience with hand and power tools (including full-size, floor-mounted drill press, table saw, and ceramic tile saw), measuring devices, types of wood, sub-floors, and stud walls.

In later years, the inter-generational and intra-familial component proved durable when they investigated and taught themselves about fishing, deer hunting with a compound bow, computer technology and IT, and auto repair (not just changing a tire or the oil, but the more daunting challenges of replacing a timing belt or a rear axle boot).

Along the way we bought tools for them, to help them follow their interests and build their confidence.

Two in a long series of tool gifts: carefully reconditioned Stanley plane (from Evan) and high-quality multi-tool (from Derek).

Nor was the learning and giving all one way.  When birthdays and gift-giving holidays rolled around, their thoughts frequently turned to tools, and they bought a series of nice ones for me.

And when time came for each son to leave for college, we went shopping together, bought a rugged tool bag with many pouches, and filled it with good tools. It was at once a mark of skills developed, of confidence born partly of knowing what tools are, are for, and how they can be an extension of self.  And perhaps, I hoped, an acknowledgement of having learned about tools both by themselves and with me.

But in their grandfather John’s case, autodidacticism was not the whole of it.  Nor was going to college in the picture.

Beginning several years after he finished high school, he entered a period of formal higher education that was not “college,” but was nevertheless suited to his autodidactic bent, economically feasible, structured systematically, and designed to guide his professional development in ways no other available avenue offered.

Learning By Mail: International Correspondence Schools

Archival Archeology and the Vagaries of Memory

Although I would have been only three years old in 1941 when my father transferred from Enka’s Printing Department to Mechanical Research, I retained several related memories from a few years after that: some books and paperbound booklets, groups of 3 or 4 of which (I recalled vividly, I thought) he had had bound in red; a plush-lined set of “drawing instruments” (he called them); and a small drafting table he had built, which stood for some years so as to catch the light from the side window in the master bedroom.

I knew vaguely that those items had to do somehow with his “work,” but how, I was too young to grasp.  And I don’t recall ever seeing him use them.

At some point the table and those instruments had disappeared.  I assumed that the drafting board had been stored away or discarded, and maybe the drawing instruments had not survived my parents’ several moves in the late 1950s and early 60s.  But the red-bound volumes I was fairly sure I recalled having seen in later years, and had learned somehow that they had something to do with “ICS.”

What I had to go on then, it seemed, were fragmentary memories of the homemade drawing table, a small box of mysterious “instruments,” and a few red-bound books.  But maybe I could use them (and whatever I might find online) to cobble something together.

Another possibility, however, was that my 3 years-older brother might remember things I didn’t. When asked, he said he recalled seeing our father working at his drawing board, and maybe a few immaculately inked drawings he had made, but didn’t remember any books or other objects.

The next day, however, he told me he had found three boxes in a closet. In one was an old and deteriorated set of drawing instruments, and in another a slide rule and a couple of dozen books, some of which were published by the International Textbook Company in Scranton PA, mostly in the 1930s.

By then I had discovered by then that the International Correspondence Schools (ICS) were based in Scranton, and had grown out of the International Textbook Company, also based in Scranton. The books in the closet box were then surely from ICS!


The case of drawing instruments presented an apt image of the task that faced me: to reconstruct — out of a few fragments — my father’s experience with ICS.  So great was my ignorance, this task required considerable investigation: to sketch the history of ICS, and try to place my father within it, although the archival objects my brother had discovered did not include a single piece of correspondence or other paperwork.


Eugene Dietzgen Co., “Reliance” drawing instruments, probably ca. 1930. Rusted, partly broken, in mouse-eaten case.  Rediscovered 2021 by Richard Whisnant. Click to enlarge.

To “read” what I saw, some of my own memories turned out to be useful.

During my first two years of college (1956-1958), I had been a co-op student (alternating school and work quarters) in engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, and my introductory courses included Engineering Drawing.  For that, we rat hat-wearing freshmen (“To Hell With Georgia” we had to write on the back) each bought a set of Dietzgen instruments.

Dietzgen “Master-Pro” (I was neither, but I appreciated the thought) drawing instruments, bought at Georgia Tech student store (“the Robbery,” we called it) in August 1956.  I used them in my drawing labs, during my co-op “work quarters,” and have kept and used them in my shop ever since.

During my work quarters, I lived at home and worked as a draftsman in the Plant Engineering Department at American Enka, using these instruments daily. Since my father worked in another office close by, I saw him frequently, but I cannot remember ever talking with him about his ICS experience. In the drafting room I learned importantly from my experienced mentors, but I also spent many hours in plant shops and production areas, learning (autodidactically) as much as I could by watching and asking questions.

Because I always had liked my drawing instruments (their excellent design, how they looked and felt in my hand, how useful and adaptable they were), I had kept them (and used them at times in my own design projects) for more than 60 years before I found myself in the midst of writing this blog post.

Amidst the uncertainties and holes in the data, one thing was certain: when I looked at a set of drawing instruments (rusty and broken or not) , I knew from long practice exactly what I was looking at.

Getting to see a non-ruined set of the Dietzgen “Reliance” drawing instruments like those from the box in the closet turned out to be easy (thanks to eBay):

Dietzgen “Reliance” drawing instruments, undated but identical, except for slight rearrangement in case. Click to enlarge.

What Was ICS, and How Did It Function?

In 1894, twenty years before my father was born, the International Textbook Company incorporated the International Correspondence Schools (ICS) in Scranton PA, in the NE corner of the Pennsylvania coal fields.

ICS was initially directed toward coal miners and safety inspectors, who had to pass a state-required Mine Safety Act examination.  But it quickly grew far beyond that boundary.12

Central to its conception and operation was an idea, Watkinson argues, that set it apart from much education of the era: to serve the vast potential pool of students who “sought a type of learning that would give them immediate socioeconomic mobility . . . [into] the upper echelons of skilled occupations or . . . white-collar work without engaging in traditional apprenticeships or extended formal education.”13

ICS’s expansive educational vision was to provide “practical men with a technical education and technical men with a practical education.”  Its early and sustained success, Watkinson observed, “owed much to its understanding the market and its prospective students — and having few illusions about either.”

ICS was admirably clear and above-board about what it was doing: The reason the student is taking one of our courses, they said, “is that he desires to put the knowledge obtained into immediate practical use. We [aim] . . .  to give the student such information regarding the principles, theory, and practice as he can use with the position he is aiming to fill.”


ICS’s 64-page Glimpses (1904) presented a large and fully-staffed organization capable of handling course design and teaching operation, bulk mail, advertising, admissions and student work evaluations. Click to enlarge and read page-by-page.

And it resonated: in less than a decade the ICS plant grew from two borrowed rooms to two 2-story buildings, and their range of courses expanded markedly.14

As of 1907, ICS had 31 “schools” offering over 300 courses. By the end of the first decade, 190,000 students had been enrolled, and by 1910, 100,000 per year were taking courses.  The advent of  the Post Office’s parcel post and rural free delivery (RFD) services allowed the school to offer “Course in a Crate” to many of the 4 million students who had enrolled by 1930.

International Correspondence Schools, 1906. Click to enlarge.

Tuition could be paid in installments at $3, $5, or $10 per month installment payments.

From the beginning, ICS advertised heavily in popular magazines, newspapers, and by direct mail.

The school also offered a number of attractive inducements to students and their potential (or actual) employers.  If a student wanted to study a language (French, German, and Spanish were offered), for his $100 he received 25 language records, four textbooks, and an “Edison Standard Phonograph.”15 By 1906, ICS had also negotiated company-wide contracts with large companies (164 of them railroads, listed in Glimpses above) that offered 2% discounts to students, and almost guaranteed that those who completed courses (with certificates) would be promoted.

ICS had shown conclusively that  professional education could be made available, attractive and widely useful through mass communications and mass marketing.  In the 1940s they operated a Latin American unit as well.

Before I leave this small narrative of discovery, I have to admit that one of its lessons was about the fallibility of memory (mine). When the ICS books, which no one in the family had seen for decades, turned up, they were were not bound in red, and not of the dimensions I recalled. There were 14 of them (13 shown here), and they looked like this:

John Whisnant’s small shelf of International Correspondence Schools books, not marked as such on the spine, but published by International Textbook Company (Scranton PA), between 1921 and 1944, and clearly intended for that purpose.  Presumably these are the only ones he had, but there could have been others. They were black, not red. What the red ones were (which I still think he owned), or what happened to them, I have no idea. Some sort of books on radio would be my guess.

How Good Was ICS Instruction?

In a book-length study, one would need to address this question by looking at many parameters: quality of faculty (very good, it appears), scope and quality of the ICS teaching faculty (impressive), quality of management (competent, aggressive, imaginative), courses offered (content, range, comparative quality) and so on.  But available space here allows for little more than a brief look at a single parameter, and my prior attention to the mechanical drawing component urges in that direction.

During his inquiry into ICS history, Watkinson discovered a paradox:

ICS’s advanced engineering texts were academically rigorous enough that many colleges and universities
bought them for their students, faculty, and libraries. However, the strength of the ICS system lay in its ability to introduce, in relatively simple language, subjects that its students may have thought were beyond their intellectual reach and then build gradually to mastery of fields like electrical or chemical engineering. In essence, ICS . . . attempted to demystify industrial technology and science . . . at the same time that Americans were . . . frightened by technological advances and yearned to understand and embrace them.16

The Mechanical Drawing Component

At the time I started working on this post, I had been thoroughly familiar with (and a user of) the established conventions of engineering drawing since I had donned a Georgia Tech (freshman) rat hat with “To Hell With Georgia” on the back.  But it had never occurred to me to wonder where, when, and how such conventions had originated, or why they had taken the form they had.

For reference, one of my own drawings from 1960:

Enka dwgs DEW

Enka Nylon Department drawing C-40-42357.  Drawn by David E. Whisnant, July 18, 1960; restorative editing by Evan D. Whisnant. Scanned from a 1960 Ozalid print, discolored and blurred somewhat over the years. Click drawing to open readable version, or here to open to detail at center (a half-section, fully-dimensioned front detail of the photocell shield with R and L views).

The above drawing and its separate, numbered detail sections use many (but by no means all) of the by-then established engineering drawing conventions.  It provides design and construction images and details for a modified commercial Veeder Root counter assembly to be added to a set of existing nylon knitting machines (168″ Kidder Tricot Knitter): fully- or partly-dimensioned (as necessary) orthographic projections, half-sections, pictorial and schematic views, materials, and assembly methods.

Having done this sort of work for a couple of years, I felt reasonably well prepared to encounter the written history of mechanical drawing, and–through that–to evaluate what ICS was doing in that area of instruction.

The historical development of engineering drawing has been extensively researched and written upon in recent years, but fortunately a few months ago a smart student at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute wrote a 10-page précis of it in his undergraduate thesis.17  In his narrative, he observes that since medieval times, drawings had been used to convey technical information, but in the 18th century, advanced drawing styles emerged to display increasingly complex information. Although they were not mechanical drawings of machines, they were precursors to the technical drawing style that became established by the mid-19th century.

That style owed much to British inventor and mechanical engineer James Watt (1736-1819) and French mathematician Gaspard Monge (1746-1818), who developed practices still used by draftsmen and engineers.

By the end of the 18th century there was some systematized teaching of these principles and procedures in Europe, but in the early American republic most such learning came through apprenticeships.  Two events in the opening years of the 19th century gave a boost to regularizing mechanical drawing approaches: the establishment of the U.S. Patent Office in 1790 (patent applications required detailed drawings, frequently prepared by “patent agencies”), and an 1803 act of Congress that established a peacetime “Corps of Engineers” that included a “teacher of drawing.”

The earliest American school to offer a technical drawing program, Kotilainen discovered, was the Military Academy at West Point in 1817, followed by Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute (1824), Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School (1847), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1849), and at several universities by the early 1850s.  In turn, those programs stimulated a market for technical drawing materials and instruments. The Stanley Company’s landmark Treatise on Mathematical Drawing Instruments (1866) went through many editions, and the Franklin Institute inaugurated exhibitions of students’ mechanical and architectural drawings.

Bigelow, The Useful Arts (1840). Bevel gears, Fig. 110, vol. II, p. 56

Bigelow, The Useful Arts.  (1840). Wheel and pinion, Fig. 108, II, p. 54.

The first textbook-like publication was Jacob Bigelow’sThe Useful Arts (1840). Bigelow augmented the rudimentariness of his drawings (only a schematic front view of each item, no dimensions, no specifications, etc.) with verbal descriptions (e.g., for Fig. 108: “[T]he line joining the centres B and F . . . is called the line of centres and, when this line is divided into two parts, FA and BA, which are to each other, as the number of leaves in the pinion is to the number of teeth in the wheel, BA is called the primitive radius of the wheel, and FA, the primitive radius of the pinion,” and so on).

Going far beyond Bigelow, the American industrialist, inventor, engineer (and stickler for every variety of detail) William Sellers standardized technical drawing guidelines (especially the use of fully dimensioned plans and what came to be called orthographic projection to represent a three-dimensional object in two dimensions) to help machinery manufacturers maximize  quality control over production.

Sellers established a centralized technical drawing office within his company, and by 1855 all draftsmen working for him were using consistent colors and line weights, and drew upon a catalog of symbols for their drawings. The visual style used by Sellers’s drawing office became an American standard around 1870.18

So how well did ICS do with the fundamental skill of mechanical drawing–still relatively newly developed, but already 20 years old after Sellers’s 1870s codification?

Ruling pen, ICS, Geometrical Drawing, Fig. 38, p. 19.

Students worked first through basic geometrical terms (lines and points, angles,

plane figures, solids), drawing equipment (pens and pencils, compasses, dividers, drafting triangles, protractors, scales, irregular curves) and lettering.


Triangular scale, ICS, Geometrical Drawing, Fig. 46, p. 25.

Drafting triangles, ICS Geometrical Drawing, Fig. 51, p. 31.




They then proceeded through nearly 50 pages of drawing “problems,” moving from simple to complex figures.  In the process they produced five “plates” that went to ICS instructors for review, comments and corrections.19

Bound together with the 100-page Geometrical Drawing book was a similar-sized treatment of the more advanced technique of orthographic projection, essential to almost any engineering drawing (e.g., Whisnant drawing C-40-42357 above).

In contrast to the much older technique of perspective drawing, where all lines taper to a single distant point, orthographic projection places the 3-dimensional object within an imaginary glass box and projects the object’s top and/or bottom and right and/or left side(s), as its configuration requires.

Rendered orthographically, a simple step-like object with a single hole bored in the step would look as follows:

The 3-dimensional object:


Succeeding lessons dealt with projections of simple and then more complex solids (e.g., a hexagonal prism), solids with faces not parallel to the box sides, objects with inclined axes, intersections of solids, and other complexities.

Among my father’s ICS books were several more advanced ones.

Machine Sketching (1929) detailed the aims, parameters, and procedures for producing (probably field) sketches of machine parts.  Although made free-hand (sometimes on graph paper), they provided as much detail as necessary for some exigent purpose.  Some were single-view pictorials made from on-site measurements; others required multiple views.

Machine sketch of crank lever. Machine Sketching, p. 30. Single view dimensioned pictorial. Click to enlarge.

Mechanical Drawing (1927; 1933) treated common drawing conventions (e.g., cross-section markings for metals), screws and other  fasteners, helical forms (e.g., worm gears), pulleys and couplings, pistons and connecting rods, and similarly complex parts.

Simple pictorial representation of worm gear. Mechanical Drawing, p. 68.

Single (side) view of precisely-machined connecting rod. Mechanical Drawing, p. 89.  Click to enlarge.

These few examples seem adequate to characterize both the early and increasingly more challenging stages of ICS’s approach to teaching engineering drawing.20  Given the carefully structured and sequenced, meticulously detailed, regularly evaluated and critiqued system of instruction, it seems that a studiously attentive trip through the curriculum would have given a student more than adequate mastery of that sector of a college-level mechanical engineering curriculum.

Nevertheless, ICS maintained an open and imaginative approach to the contents and methods of their teaching, and their ways of reaching students.

Augmented (in-Person) Distance Learning : An Example from 1900

ICS advertisement 1898. ICS Collection, University of Scranton.  Click for enlarged image.

During the COVID year of 2020-21, much of the prior school-based, face-to-face teaching and learning in the United States was converted to an online, digitally-based system that was widely practiced, debated and frequently modified.

Remarkably, in 1900, International Correspondence Schools launched a precursor of the blended system that many schools–COVID-impelled or not–wended their way to 120 years later.

Working along on the research for this post, I happened upon a one-page article in the January 24, 1900 issue of The Railway Age about ICS’s efforts in this regard.

Railway ICS classroom

The Railway Age, January 4, 1900. University of Scranton Library ICS collection. Click for larger, readable image.

After only about a half-dozen (very successful, in fact) years of providing by-mail distance learning for many thousands of students, some teacher or administrator at ICS had an ahead-of-its-time idea: outfit a railway Pullman car as a rolling classroom/laboratory, and take it to groups of students scattered far and wide.

Better yet, they built small fleet of them that could fan out across the country in various directions. The first was an “enrolling car” to sign up potentially interested students (at the beginning, railway workers, but later students in other areas). Following it was a 70 ft. long and 11 ft. wide (about 800 square-foot) multi-function car containing a kitchen, dining room and sleeping quarters for traveling instructors, a large, stereopticon-equipped (the YouTube of its day, one muses) lecture room for 40 students, and a laboratory with full-size working examples of instruction-related controls and equipment (e.g., braking systems, lighting, signaling equipment).

The cars were to be stationed  at key points for “as long as necessary . . . to give every student an opportunity to ask questions of the instructors who accompany the car” and to learn about the equipment.21

Nor were the railroad teaching cars the only auxilliary means ICS used to expand its reach and become more attractive and useful to both students and employers. In the 1910s and 1920s they produced a set of pocket-sized handbooks for a wide variety of workers.

They created a sort of early LinkedIn-style “clearinghouse of information utility” called “Trained Men,” and their lecture bureau sent speakers  far and wide to explain and promote the ICS system.22

For many decades, ICS survived and flourished, but along the way competing organizations and programs emerged. As early as the 1890s, established colleges and universities (especially the land-grant ones) began to offer extension and correspondence learning opportunities.  By the 1920s, junior colleges began to appear, and later community colleges.  ICS enrollments remained high until the post-World War II GI Bill made more attractive options available, but ICS continued to function until (after a 106-year run) it went bankrupt in 1996.23


Did American Enka have a contract with ICS that helped John Whisnant and some of his fellow workers pay for the courses they took?  I would not be surprised if they did, but I have seen no evidence. 

I do not know whether my father completed the ICS Mechanical Engineering course or not, but there is no doubt that he worked at it assiduously for years.24 

If he received certificates or a diploma, I have never seen them. But there can be no doubt that he benefited greatly from his persistent and meticulous work in his ICS courses, and in his job and profession he was able to move from the Print Shop to the Mechanical Research Department and a career in engineering.25

He lived to see the day, as I heard and observed in his later years, when not having “gone to college” in the traditional sense was a source of perennial anxiety, daily insecurity, and shortage of self-confidence.  But for a long time (his whole life, really) his own autodidactic efforts and his having gone to something serviceably like college through ICS  served him amazingly well.  He had no college degree, but at Enka he hired many engineers who had, and they reported to and learned from him — as have his own children, and — to a degree — theirs.



Archive Grid, “International Correspondence Schools”; ICS History Page; Jacob Bigelow, The Useful Arts, Considered in Connexion with the Applications of Science: With Numerous Engravings, Vol. II. Boston: Marsh, Capen, Lyon, and Webb, 1840.; John K. Brown, “When Machines Became Gray and Drawings Black and White: William Sellers and the Rationalization of Mechanical Engineering,” IA. The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology 25, no. 2 (1999): 29-54;  International Correspondence Schools, Course books (1929-1944) and Glimpses of the Largest Educational Institution in the World, the International Correspondence Schools (Scranton PA), 1904; Aaron Kotilainen,  Nineteenth-Century Scientific American Illustrations and the Development of American Mechanical Drawing (2019);  James D. Watkinson, “Education for Success: The International Correspondence Schools.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography CXX, No. 4 (October 1996), 344-369; University of Scranton, Digital Collections, International Correpondence Schools of Scrantson Collection History, International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania – 1891 to the Present


  1. See section 5.1 of Every Marriage Is Two Marriages: John Whisnant and Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant’s Early Years Together, 1934-1940.  No records of his printing business have come to light.[]
  2. The 1935 Enka listing is on pp. 649-658.[]
  3. Actually, they had also shared a house with his sister and her husband for about a year, and then moved to an apartment on Haywood Road, neither included in the directories.[]
  4. Exactly how  department names correlated with jobs and functions is difficult to calculate.  The years 1941-1950 — which included World War II — were marked by great expansion and change at Enka, when units and departments multiplied and were often renamed and restructured.[]
  5. See previous post Every Marriage Is Two Marriages: John Whisnant and Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant’s Early Years Together, 1934-1940. On Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant’s own difficult early years and unfulfilled hope of going to college, see Cotton Mill Colic vs. the Land of the Sky: From Gastonia to Asheville,  The Down Side of the Land of the Sky: The Rudisills in Asheville and West Asheville, 1922-1951 and Maybe Down the Road Somewhere: A Working-Class Valedictorian in Depression-era Asheville.[]
  6. See Wikipedia’s extensive list of autodidacts, from Da Vinci to Steve Jobs.[]
  7. A quick search through JSTOR or other bibliographical database will turn up hundreds of articles and books on — or dealing substantially with — autodidacticism across many fields of endeavor.[]
  8. Although I learned very late in the blogging process that his mother (b. 1869) had actually gone to college for one year, and worked as a pioneer registered nurse before her marriage.  See Ella, Asbury and the State Hospital at Morganton: From Social and Institutional to Personal History and A Document Answers Some Questions (and Raises New Ones.  John spent his first 9 years (1914-1923) in a small rented servants’ or tenants’ house at 44 South French Broad Avenue.((See previous posts Working Class Family Behind the Big House: Asbury, Ella, and Their Children: 1907-1918, and Family Challenges in the ‘Teens: A Strike, a Flood, and an Epidemic.[]
  9. See previous post Moving on Up to Pisgah Heights: The Whisnants in West Asheville.[]
  10. See previous post Maybe Down the Road Somewhere: A Working-Class Valedictorian in Depression-era Asheville.[]
  11. See previous post Calling CQ: An Amateur Radio Geek in the 1920s and Beyond.[]
  12. This account of ICS draws substantially upon James D. Watkinson’s excellent article, “Education for Success: The International Correspondence Schools.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography CXX, no. No. 4 (October 1996), 344-369. Watkinson’s narrative and analysis — too extensive to represent adequately here — repay a full and close reading. Quotations not otherwise attributed are from his article.[]
  13. Watkinson notes (p. 348) that ICS-type schools proliferated in the 1890s and thereafter. The American School of Chicago entered the field (1897), as did Union Correspondence Schools of New York, which within a short time after opening had “far more students on its rolls than Columbia University.”  By 1926 there were as many as 350 such proprietary schools–some more reputable and above-board than others.  The American School still exists, and has some 50,000 students worldwide.[]
  14. Wilkinson notes (p. 352) that the growth of ICS was boosted by the proliferation of state-based professional testing and licensing examinations.[]
  15. I searched in vain for a phonograph that might fit this vague description.  Edison phonographs were produced in many (mostly cylinder) models, and with a vast number of model names and numbers.  The first disc models appeared in mid-1911.[]
  16. Watkinson, p. 352[]
  17. Aaron Kotilainen, Nineteenth-Century Scientific American Illustrations and the Development of American Mechanical Drawing.  I draw extensively upon Kotilainen here, frequently in his own words.[]
  18. Sellers’s revolutionary work receives meticulous analysis and discussion in John K. Brown’s in “When Machines Became Gray and Drawings Black and White: William Sellers and the Rationalization of Mechanical Engineering,” IA. The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology, Vol. 25, No. 2 (1999), pp. 29-54.[]
  19. See Examiners Making First Corrections page in Glimpses.[]
  20. My father’s ICS books included Advanced Mechanical Drawing Book I and Book II Part 2 (both 1928).[]
  21. A 1904 publication said that ICS owned and operated 8 such cars, and that the industries themselves had outfitted their own on-site study rooms for ICS students.[]
  22. Watkinson, p. 360[]
  23. ICS History Page and Watkinson, pp. 365-368[]
  24. Watkinson’s examination of student records revealed that fewer than 5% of those who chose “long courses” such as engineering, completed them.[]
  25. I will return to a fuller discussion of that in a future post.[]

4 thoughts on “Engineer by Mail: John Whisnant’s Early Years at American Enka, 1933-1941

  1. Ron White

    This article is so interesting. Although my field of speciality concentrated on electrical and electronics, I did have to take a number of courses in mechanical, thermal, hydraulic and other areas. I was required to take only an elementary course in mechanical drawing. Electrical engineering students also had to take one course, which proved difficult for many, where one learned how to solve mechanical problems using graphic techniques rather than mathematical techniques. I have forgotton what the course was called. I loved the picture of the lathe! I would never have completed a full 4 year formal electrical engineering program without the low state of California tuition, It was zero dollars for my first two years and 68 dollars per semester for my final two years. Before completing the formal program and finishing at age 30, I had completed a 1 year trade and technical program iwhen I was 18, then a correspondense program by CREI (Capital Radio Engineering Institute) when I was about 23. I had a long route to my BSEE and probably only made it that far because I married at age 33 and was tired of being turned down by companies who said I did not qualify as an ¨engineer”unless I had a formal 4 year degree. My son is a mechanical engineer from Texas A and M University. Keep your historical articles coming.

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Reply to Ron White: Thank you so much for this, Ron. I hope you are a subscriber to the blog; I would like to have the benefit of your comments and suggestions going forrward. You were very fortunate to be able to do your degree in the CA system at the time you did. I don’t remember how much Ga. Tech tuition/fees amounted to at the time, but I do remember that my target for my savings account at the end of every co-op work quarter was $600, which I generally just barely made! If I had that much, I could live in the dorm, eat in the dining hall, pay for books and fees, with just barely enough left over to buy a bus ticket back to Asheville. In some later quarters, I got a job as an RA in the dorm, which helped a bit, too. When I switched my major to Physics (early junior year?), I worked in the Physics machine shop and ran labs for them, which (again) barely paid for my time in school. I had never heard of CREI, even though I was into the radio/radio engineering documents and literature a good bit when I was writing my post on my father’s ham radio years (W4KI; “Calling CQ” is the short title of the post). I did finish my BS in Physics at Tech, and considered going on with it, but decided to switch to humanities, and did my Ph.D. in English and History at Duke. Spent 35 years teaching, doing research and writing at several universities, which I enjoyed greatly, especially the writing part. I certainly do understand about the elitism of companies who wouldn’t credit anything but a 4-year degree. As I said in the post, my father suffered (needlessly) from a sense of inferiority and vulnerability for that reason–even though he did in fact have the job at Enka. Best to you, keep in touch and do subscribe to the blog if you haven’t already. It’s free, and will insure that you will be notified of future posts. David


    As the eldest of John Whisnant’s sons, I share many of your memories of him and appreciate your putting them to paper. You and I had the same path to a Ga. Tech degree (Mechanical Engineering in my case) that was essentially paid for by our co-op employment at American Enka. Were it not for that employment, I am not sure how either of us would have gotten a college degree, at least not in the timely manner in which we did. We owe a debt to American Enka and the people who made it possible. More importantly, the practical experience that we gained at Enka, I have always felt, had a markedly beneficial effect on my ability to practice my profession. And it even paid off after graduation in that Westinghouse Elec. Corp. paid me $475/mo. as a co-op graduate instead of the $450/mo. paid to those graduating from the conventional program. They put some value on our practical experience, perhaps analogous to the ICS philosophy your blog identifies.
    Two small and not very important notes on your blog here: one is that your skill as draftsman seems to be better than I remember mine to be; and second, I remember the auto that John and Mary Neal had during our early days being referred to many times as “that old ’33 Plymouth” instead of a 1934 model. Doesn’t much matter. does it?

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