Hunting down items to display in a new exhibit of technology should have been a snap for Hughes Aircraft Co.
After all, the small museum being built in the lobby of one of the company's main manufacturing buildings in El Segundo was supposed to showcase some of Hughes' most successful products: detection equipment that can locate objects in the dark.
But even the most sophisticated Hughes Forward Looking InfraRed detector could not find examples of older-generation sensors that the officials wanted to include in the exhibit.
That turned out to be a job for Bob Tryon, Hughes' self-appointed pack rat.
Officials learned earlier this year that the company had never bothered to keep samples of the thousands of infrared devices built over the last four decades by Electro-Optical and Data Systems workers. Because the sensors cost up to $1.5 million each and contain some classified components, every one that passed inspection was promptly delivered to government buyers. Those that couldn't be made to work were destroyed.
None of that, however, could deter Tryon.
For 39 years, the scientist quietly stalked Hughes hallways, plucking discarded prototypes and defective production models from scrap bins. By the time he retired last year, the 66-year-old Tryon had 10 locked storage cabinets full of unwanted electronic gear stashed around the El Segundo facility.
Tryon started his collection in 1950 by retrieving a discarded infrared missile guidance mechanism from a 55-gallon refuse drum outside a manufacturing room. The device, one of 25,000 eventually built for Air Force Falcon interceptor missiles, had failed inspection and was tossed into the drum to be incinerated.
"I just hated to see it thrown away," Tryon said. "Fishing through trash cans didn't bother me at all."
It bothered somebody, though. A few days later, whispered tales of how a young scientist had been seen rummaging through top-secret garbage reached Tryon's boss. He demanded to know what Tryon was doing and why.
"I told him these could be treasures some day," the Woodland Hills resident recalled. "I developed the reputation of being a pack rat early in the game."
No more objections were raised. Tryon added that he was careful never to breach security and that none of the items he hoarded ever left the premises.
Tryon's treasure collection eventually grew to include samples of virtually every infrared product made by Hughes. When he couldn't find certain devices, he hunted down pieces of them that could be reassembled.
In 1962, he obtained the world's first successful production laser--a tiny, ruby-based device that later became the heart of a gun-aiming system in Army tanks. In 1968, he saved one of the first "seeing-in-the-dark" surveillance devices for aircraft--a football-sized sensor installed on B-52 bombers and used in Vietnam.
Ten years later, he grabbed a sample of a helmet-shaped detector equipped with a refrigerator-type cooling system and an automatic zoom lens. That sophisticated thermal imaging sensor was the one used by U.S. warplanes during the 1986 nighttime raid on the headquarters of Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi.
When Hughes officials decided to set up the lobby display, Tryon jumped at the chance to come out of retirement to help organize it with items from his hoard.
"Bob . . . probably has a warehouse full (of these items)," said Malcolm Currie, Hughes Aircraft's chairman of the board, who visited the Electro-Optical plant last week to unveil the first phase of the exhibit.
In the future, Currie said, the company should make more of an effort to chronicle its past.
"We're so attuned to always looking forward to the next generation of technologies and products and to the next horizon, we very seldom take time to look back" at past inspiration and innovation, Currie said.
Tryon's collection rekindled memories for many. Mike Sebastian, a veteran tactical products supervisor who fashioned wooden bases for the display's artifacts in his home workshop, fondly recalled the ruby laser.
"We didn't know whether we'd be blinded or vaporized or what the first time we tried it," he laughed.
For others, the exhibit was an eye-opener. "I've never seen these," said Del Andrus, a company cost estimator. "When you see the humongous bills of material for things, you wonder where it goes."
Pat Patterson, manufacturing manager for the sensors, said he would prefer that samples of future products be systematically saved. But the increasing cost and sophistication of new models may force workers to rebuild the rejects instead of throwing them away.
That, Patterson said, could force future pack rats to pack it in.