Remembering my Grandfather

My grandfather, Charles “CJ” Swet passed away on Wednesday December 17, 2020. As sad as I am to see him go, the life he lived in his 98 years was an exceptional one, and up to the very end he was sharper than most of the folks you’re likely to meet.

As I begin to feel the space he leaves behind, I am compelled to put down a few words about him, though no amount of writing would really capture what a singular individual he truly was.

CJ grew up in Chicago in the 20s and 30s. His father Abe was a journalist making his career as a crime reporter in the heyday of mob-run prohibition-era Chicago. His mother Pearl was an English teacher and a writer from Farnsworth Wright’s Weird Tales pulp sci-fi/fantasy writing circle. CJ was clever and socially deft from a young age; well above average as both a writer and a mathematician. His keen intellect led him to pursue a maritime engineering degree at MIT, where he graduated with distinction in the middle of WWII. After finishing his degree he moved from Boston to Philadelphia to do naval design and engineering, supporting the war effort by converting commercial watercraft to military purposes for the US Navy.

During his time in the shipyards of Philadelphia, he worked alongside Richard James, the man who became briefly wealthy and famous for creating that classic children’s toy the Slinky. CJ swore to anyone who would listen that he himself was the TRUE inventor of the slinky, and the only thing that Richard James invented was a fake story to cover how he stole the idea from CJ.

Although there’s no way for me to verify CJ’s account of the story, I can confirm that he enforced an unbreakable rule: none of his children or grandchildren could so much as mention slinkies in his presence, much less bring one into the house. According to my mother and her brothers, CJ resented Mr. James for as long as she could remember. Richard James ultimately left his wife for another woman and joined a religious cult in Bolivia (his wife, Betty James, kept the toy company and ran it with great success), while CJ followed his own rather different path.

After the war, CJ met and married my grandmother Emily Wharton, a nurse and war widow (and a rather singular person herself). They went on to have five children and CJ began a successful engineering career just as the space race was taking off. The aerospace field was new enough that his maritime engineering degree made him suitably qualified, and no doubt his love for science-fiction made the work even more appealing.

He worked on a multitude of projects for Boeing and other firms, accumulating dozens of patents and publication credits in the process. A brief glance at google patents and google scholar reveals just a portion of his productive intellectual output from that era and later. Although I never discussed the matter with him directly, I suspect that his experience with Richard James and the slinky motivated him to be much more aggressive in securing patents for his designs and ideas.

As time went by, however, his employer called on him to do more design and engineering work relating to intercontinental ballistic rocketry, and CJ grew increasingly distressed by the ethical nuclear warfare implications of the work he was contributing to. After several unsuccessful requests to be relocated to other departments within Boeing, he ultimately decided that he could not continue his work for them in good conscience and publicly resigned, becoming a committed public pacifist and anti-war activist.

After walking away from his lucrative and well-established aerospace career, CJ redirected his attention to pursuits that he saw as more in line with his moral and ethical principles. He quickly established himself as a specialist in the technical application of passive and active solar energy collection. His credentials, intellect, and creative energy pushed him to the forefront of the field, and he spent much of the 70s and 80s consulting, writing, lecturing, and inventing.

A cursory review of his publication history shows this shift in expertise quite clearly as he moved from writing articles like “Biosatellite recovery from circular orbits” in 1962, “Some Applications of Passive Spacecraft Orientation Techniques” in 1964, “Orbital Deployment of Very Long Tethered Structures” in 1968, to an entirely different field with “Prototype solar kitchen” in 1972, “Thermochemical water cracking using solar heat” in 1975, and “Energy storage requirements for autonomous and hybrid solar thermal electric power plants” in 1978.

By the late 1970s, CJ’s knowledge was in high demand, and he was frequently invited to present at solar and alternative energy conferences around the world. With their five children grown, Emily and CJ were able to travel together regularly, visiting countries across Asia, Europe, and South America (As a native Spanish speaker and near-fluent French speaker, Emily was doubtless invaluable for many of their global travels together).

At home, CJ and Emily lived out their commitment to reduction of fossil fuel consumption through solar energy and efficiency — they heated their tiny 200 year-old farmhouse in the mountains of western Maryland using only a solarium and two small wood stoves. Even in his 80s, CJ was still chopping his firewood by hand (albeit with a hammer and splitting wedge at that point, rather than a full-sized axe).

As the demands of age and health finally pushed CJ to slacken in his consulting and lecturing activities, he took up a new project — drafting a history of the American paddle-wheel steam-boat. For much of his 80s and early 90s, CJ and Emily traveled to major shipping and boat-construction centers up and down the East Coast, as he pored through historical archives for shipping logs, manufacturing records, and private journals to assemble a comprehensive picture of America’s first nautical steps away from wind-power and towards ocean-going steam engines.

Ultimately none of these bits of life even begin to capture the breadth of CJ’s uniqueness.

He wrote bizarre short stories.

He recited obscure poems from memory.

He sang Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

He had the quickest wit I’ve ever seen for silly puns and subtle double-entendres.

He was a cornerstone of his local Society of Friends/Quaker community.

He was my beloved grandfather, and there will never be another like him.

Baltimore native, anthropologist, researcher, inventor, potter, writer, and traveler (Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, and bits of Asia).