Bob the Bowdoin Builder

by Selby Frame

Photos by James Marshall

Illustrations by A.F. Norling

Bob Stevens is a Bowdoin scientist's secret weapon



Machinists like Bob Stevens aren't common at undergraduate institutions, and guys like Bob Stevens aren't common anywhere. Selby Frame introduces us to a Bowdoin scientist's secret weapon, someone who can make almost anything.

The sweeping staircase of the renovated Searles Science Building connects students to a labyrinth of top-flight laboratories and classrooms. But there is another important staircase at Searles - a cement one. It quietly leads the back-door traveler down to the basement where Bob Stevens makes things.

Bob_6.jpgA 26-year veteran of the College, Bob's official Bowdoin title is "mechanician," a fantastically 19th century-sounding word for machinist. Ask him what that means, and Bob says simply: "I build things, that's all." Bob has machined parts and created equipment for a wide array of professors, staff, students, and even children ("I built a backdrop for a puppet show for a summer camp group once," he says.) Technically, he's part of the physics department staff - and, as such, he helps professors develop equipment for research and teaching - but you can find his handiwork in many Bowdoin biology and chemistry labs, in art studios and concert stages. He's even been known to fix a golf club or two.

"A lot of people at this college don't even know I exist," grins Bob. "But ones that do, I try to help them out. The people who are touring the campus, if they catch me at the right time, I try to drag them down to this shop and show them what we do."

He refers to his machines as his “guys” and can tell you the month and year Bowdoin purchased each one.

In the tattered ledger where Bob has hand-logged jobs since 1978, records show he has completed some 1,070 jobs since 1993. "Some might take me three-quarters of an hour," he says with a rich Maine accent, "others take months." One of his favorite projects has been outfitting the saltwater laboratory at the Coastal Studies Center. It took him an estimated 300 hours to design and build a series of plexiglass saltwater tanks for biological research there, some of which are unique and highly effective tanks for farm-raising sea urchins.

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"I have so many things here I could tell you about that Bob has built," says Bowdoin Research Associate Olaf Ellers. "The whole inside of the marine lab - all of those beautiful seawater tables, the urchin tanks. Anyone from any of the other Maine labs who comes in here admires our seawater tables and tanks."

Bob's machine shop is a do-it-yourselfer's dreamland. The odor of machine oil wafts up from a spotless floor. Equipment spanning centuries fills the 1,800 square-foot workshop, which boasts, among other things, a massive milling machine, a computer-numeric controlled lathe, an air-powered draw bar to power pneumatic equipment, and a large kiosk of hand tools, each painstakingly outlined for handy return. He refers to his machines as his "guys" and can tell you the month and year Bowdoin purchased each one.

Take a walk around the machine shop with Bob Stevens.
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"It really doesn't matter if it's built in the 1800s or today: a lathe is a lathe. As long as you can set the tooling to the depth of the cut, then turn the work and move the tool along, either by hand or by power, you can do the same work on an old machine."

"If somebody comes into the shop and tells me what they want to build, I start asking questions. I come up with what my machine shop can build, what I have for equipment, and then they leave me alone and I make a plan for it. I'll try to use my imagination. I make up some things as I go along, design as I go."

"Whether it's a cabinet or a spaceship to Mars - it's all nuts, bolts, gears, materials and geometery. Somebody has to define the geometry. That's what I do."

"Something happened to me in the 8th grade that made this college interesting to me and makes me do certain things. For a science project, I was trying to build a replica of a diaphragm that involved a glass jug with the bottom cut off it. My father pulls into the road that goes into the Bowdoin campus and goes into Cleaveland Hall - I don't know how he knew to do this...He said, 'Wait here,' and went in to see Walt Longsdale, who was the chemistry stockroom guy. Surely enough, Walt cut the bottom off the bottle for me. Since I've been here, if someone comes along like that, I take the time to help people out. It's good PR for the college. It's what I call 'government jobs.'"

Machinists use such tools to produce precision parts - usually metal. Among their skills, they can cut threads, drill holes, and cut keyways for an assortment of screws and parts. Bob can cut within a 10,000th of an inch - roughly, one-tenth the thickness of a hair. It's a precise skill on computerized equipment, but a dazzling one on many of the hand-operated "guys" that have long peopled his workshop.

When he first got to Bowdoin in 1978, some of the tools dated back to the 19th century, he says. "Right there was an old metal shaper, same model as at the Smithsonian. Some of the old equipment didn't even have graduation on the hand wheels," says Bob. "You knew what the lead of the screw was so you knew how far to turn it."

The College has made a significant investment in recent years, says Bob, who received his first piece of computerized equipment in 1996, and now has a computerized milling machine and lathe that would be the envy of larger shops.
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People today often mistake the term "machinist" for "auto mechanic," says Bob. He explains that the field is losing a young employment base as machine-tooling equipment becomes more computerized and more U.S. manufacturing jobs head overseas. "Machinists are getting up there in age," he says. "The average age is about 55, so I'm just a little guy. I'm only 52."

Bob has stayed current with the changing technology by attending professional development programs, sometimes even before Bowdoin had the equipment to support his new knowledge.

“He's very curious, and part of what makes him so good is that he's as interested in the design of something as in the production.”

Machinists are common supports for large, graduate level research laboratories such as those at Princeton, Cornell and MIT, but Bob's presence at Bowdoin is something of a rarity, notes Bowdoin Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Mark Battle. "To have a dedicated machinist in a physics department in a purely undergraduate institution is extraordinary," he says. "The other unusual thing is the infrastructure Bob has at his disposal. He has incredible pieces of new equipment and, he not only has them, he knows how to take full advantage of them.
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"Until you've done some machining you can't appreciate how hard it is," says Battle, who sometimes takes a spin on some of Bob's milling equipment. But tools are only part of it. Bob's finest skill, Battle says, is his ability to "think about the overall picture and redesign the whole thing.

Bob_2.jpgHe's very curious, and part of what makes him so good is that he's as interested in the design of something as in the production. For him, it's all one big puzzle to figure out. It's not just setting up the machine to get the best possible finish on a part, or using the least amount of materials, but thinking about how to redesign the entire thing to accomplish the goal of the scientific equipment most efficiently. There's a marvelous give-and-take in the design process. To him it's all fair game for redesign and refinement."