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By Jeff Stagl, managing editor
Tom Martin is redesigning a diesel locomotive fuel pump and prelube system. Perhaps he’ll finish by the time his 71st wedding anniversary rolls around in August. Martin, 93, has been an avid inventor since the mid-1930s. He’s invented an AC fuel pump for diesel-electric locomotives, and dozens of other pumps for the aviation and medical industries. He holds 50 U.S. patents.
What he doesn’t hold is a desire to stop working. Martin wouldn’t dream of trading his Transportation Research Corp. (TRC)/ VARNA Products lab for a workbench at the Cameron Park, Calif., home he keeps with wife Martha, 95. The father of three, grandfather of seven and great-grandfather of three continues to hit the lab at 7 a.m. sharp — and stay past 5 p.m. — to refine his locomotive fuel and prelube pump design.
“I’m not interested in retirement. I don’t golf and I don’t have a boat,” says Martin. “It’s better to spend your time doing something that’s useful, and then you’ll be reasonably happy.”
That’s been Martin’s modus operandi since he operated the only print shop on New York City’s City Island while in high school in the late 1920s. And inventing became a way of life soon after he graduated from Cornell University with a mechanical engineering degree in 1936.
Martin invented starter drives for automobiles and transmissions for washing machines. He also developed several pumps, including one for a machine that brewed coffee while a plane was airborne and another for kidney dialysis equipment.
Although he didn’t necessarily display a mechanical aptitude as a child, Martin has always been interested in inventing, he says.
And Martin’s always been good at it because he thrives on expanding his mechanical knowledge, says TRC/VARNA Sales and Marketing Manager Paul Katzoff, who has marveled at Martin’s skills and devotion while working with him the past two years.
“The reason he’s been so successful is because he sticks to what he knows,” says Katzoff. “He has seen the Depression, world wars and advances on every step of technology, so when he says, ‘No, that won’t work,’ it’s easy to take his word for it.”
Pumped and primed
Martin knows a thing or two about pumps. In 1960, Martin and his oldest son, Thomas Martin Jr. — a 68-year-old electrical engineer who works full-time at TRC/VARNA — formed MicroPump Corp. During the next two decades, Martin Sr. invented dozens of pumps at the company, now an Idex Corp. subsidiary that manufactures pumps for several industries.
In 1982, a chance encounter with a Southern Pacific Railroad manager brought Martin’s inventing acumen to the rail industry.
“He said he was looking for a better fuel pump for a locomotive,” says Martin. “Diesel-electric locomotives had been around since the 1940s and nobody thought about changing the fuel pump.”
In 1985, Martin developed a pump that eliminated the need to replace two brushes inside a DC fuel pump’s brush motor every 45 days.
But railroads didn’t want to spend money on new engine parts and maintenance processes were set up for the DC fuel pump, says Martin. Apart from a few units sold to Amtrak, Conrail and Wisconsin Central Railroad, sales were slow.
Martin continued to refine and market the pump, and in 1994 formed TRC to manufacture AC fuel pumps. He later invented a DC-to-AC inverter designed to withstand a locomotive’s pounding, which piqued railroads’ interest, Martin says.
In 1996, Union Pacific Railroad adopted the AC fuel pump. Soon afterward, Canadian National Railway Co. and the Soo Line followed with orders, helping make the component railroads’ fuel pump of choice, Martin says.
Now, he’s trying to invent another locomotive engine part of choice: a fuel and prelube system that would incorporate fewer components.
“I want to make the system work coherently together,” says Martin.
TRC/VARNA plans to market the system as a kit to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
“Hopefully, this saves a lot of purchasing and assembly activity for OEMs,” says Katzoff.
Although Martin is close to putting the finishing touches on his latest rail invention, it likely won’t be his last. Not as long as there’s another locomotive engine part to redesign.
“Railroads need to be at the forefront of technology, and they’re not,” says Martin. “I’m sure there are other components in a locomotive that could be improved.”
Maybe he’ll have something in the works before his 72nd wedding anniversary.