Seeing Beyond Borders: The International Career of Karl Mayer-Wittmann ‘46

We strive to equip a man with his sleeves rolled up, ready to go to work, to set him on the threshold of his career, well equipped for his task.
Admiral Wat Tyler Cluverius, WPI President 1939-1952

When Karl Mayer-Wittmann entered WPI as a freshman in 1942, his biography was already an international one. Before Karl was 3 years old, he and his German parents had emigrated from Argentina, where he was born, to make their home in Connecticut. 

His life after WPI would anticipate the global nature of 21st-century business and technology. In the course of an extraordinary career of 68 years and counting, as an engineer and economist, Karl has contributed to the evolution of thought and practice in fields from atomic energy to business forecasting. Working with enterprises on six continents, he has logged 300 trans-Atlantic crossings in the 55 years since his graduation.

The road that began at WPI led Karl first to war-time work as a chemical engineer at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, then to the Atomic Energy Commission, where he became chief production economist, and eventually to the Lockheed Corporation, where he was senior economist. Perhaps the apogee of his career was his work as chief economist at ITT during a period of spectacular growth that made it a global conglomerate with $17 billion in sales. It was, he says, “the best job an economist could have.”

Karl’s promise was recognized early. On his graduation from high school, he won the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Gold Medal for Excellence in Science and Mathematics, as well as the Alliance German Language Prize. He already knew that he wanted to study chemical engineering, thanks in part to his involvement in Techniquest, a WPI outreach program for promising high school juniors and seniors, that introduced him to Dean Howe. He chose WPI, rather than Rensselaer or MIT because, as he says, “WPI was a real school of engineering, the best around. It was one of the few with the right mix, the right focus. And the faculty was top-notch: Professor Hiller in chemistry, Wagner in electrical engineering, Masius in physics. Really brilliant. And Professor Karl Ludwig Mayer, who taught us thermodynamics, was wonderful – though we had a great time sending up his German accent in our sophomore skit! WPI was clearly the place to go. I have never regretted my choice.”

Of the 217 students in Karl’s freshman class, only 37 graduated with him. “The others dropped out, transferred out, were drafted or were killed in the war,” he says. “The smaller the class got, the more intense we were in our studies. When we graduated, we were full of enthusiasm. We were going to remake the world.”

Karl brought that spirit to his first job, in naval ordnance. “I was sent to Hiwassi Dam in North Carolina, where we were shooting rockets into the lake, measuring their in-air and in-water trajectories, and determining which of their components failed and how they should be re-designed. That was fun.” But he was soon confronted with the reality that engineers are not always empowered to change the world. 

Karl joined the staff of the Atomic Energy Commission’s New York Operations Office in 1948, and was soon questioning some of the basic assumptions of the industry. “I wrote a paper called ‘The Economics of Specifications,’ in which I proposed that the AEC should abandon its commitment to ‘absolute purity’ in the feedstock uranium ore it was acquiring for gaseous diffusion and plutonium production reactors and instead adopt a concept of ‘relative purity.’” At 23, Karl was challenging uranium specifications that had been accepted “by wise men from Einstein down to the experts of the day.” His paper received a less-than-warm reception inside the agency. 

The climate for his insights on the job was no more cordial. When Karl was assigned to design the materials control system for a new feed materials processing center, he questioned the proposed site of the center, on the Ohio River. “When I asked my supervisor why we were building the plant there, he grabbed me by the lapel and said, ‘Listen, you’re only an engineer. You leave sophisticated questions like that for other people to answer and get back to your drafting board.’”

Karl decided to find out who got to ask and answer such questions. “It turned out that the economist was in a better position to answer them than the engineer was. That’s when I began my graduate work in economics at the University of Tennessee.” He earned a master’s degree there in economics and statistics, then went on to study at New York University with W. Edwards Demming and Solomon Fabricant of the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

In his doctoral dissertation, The Economic Potential of Nuclear Energy in the U.S. Power Industry, completed in 1954, Karl predicted that 20 percent of the nation’s power would be generated in nuclear facilities. “And we did march right up that curve,” he says. “That’s where we are today.” But he also warned that building nuclear plants was not economically feasible everywhere, that site selection was a complex and delicate issue.  “Some people didn’t want to hear that.” 

Alongside such luminaries as physicist and Nobel Laureate Sir John Cockroft, Karl presented a paper on the economic potential of nuclear energy at the plenary session of the international “Atoms for Peace” conference in Geneva in 1955. He then delivered a series of lectures on the subject in major cities throughout Europe.

When he left the Atomic Energy Commission in the late ‘40s, Karl had joined the management consulting firm Stewart-Dougal in New York City. He had been there for less than a year when he had a call from the AEC, whose general manager, Marion Boyer, had read Karl’s papers proposing “relative purity” of uranium feedstocks. Boyer’s response: “Bring the man to Washington. We need him.” He offered Karl the position of chief economist of the operations analysis staff. When asked what pay grade he required, Karl chose the highest, G-15. “They said, ‘You can’t go from a grade 5 to grade 15.’ So, I left my card and went back to New York. Three days later, I got a call. I was hired at G-15. I was still in my 20s,” he laughs, “and I had the same pay level as a brigadier-general. Even better, my first assignment was to review the budget of the New York office, where my supervisor had told me to get back to my drafting board and mind my own business.”

In 1960, Karl was hired by the Lockheed Corporation as its chief economist; his responsibilities included long-range planning and market research and development. He predicted that intermodal container transport (that is, moving freight in containers that can be carried by rail, ship, and truck) was the wave of the future. And he pushed for acceptance of a somewhat smaller container than was common at the time – a container that would fit onto a truck and onto a Lockheed plane, but not onto planes built by Lockheed’s competitors. His container specifications are now standard in today’s thriving container freight industry.

When Karl’s papers on the future of intermodal transport reached Detroit in the early ‘60s, he was asked to present his ideas at the General Motors research center. In a discussion with GM planners following his lecture, Karl asked, “Do you think there’s room for a small car in your line-up?”

“No,” they answered, “people buy what we make.”

Karl became chief economist at the ITT Corporation in 1973. He found the position, with its emphasis on writing guidelines for planning purposes for the more than 500 companies in the conglomerate, particularly satisfying. “We had 486,000 employees, operations in 60 different countries and in 90 different currencies. It was great for me as an engineer and economist to have oversight there because nearly all our operations involved technical products and systems. And working with Harold Geneen, who I believe was a management genius, was really very good.”  

In the late ‘80s, Karl founded a consulting company, Mayer-Wittman Joint Ventures, through which he has helped European industries establish factories in the U.S. and American ones to create facilities in Europe. As head of this company, he joined the board of Wharton Economic Forecasting Associates and, between 1989 and 1999, sponsored WEFA’s Worldwide Economic Outlook Conferences in the U.S. and abroad.

Karl continues his consulting work today, from his home on the Connecticut shore. His wife, Gerda, an architect and artist who designed their waterfront home, says, “Karl was always ahead of his time. It took time for people to catch up with his ideas. He was able to see things differently, clearly, when others didn’t.”

Says Karl, “WPI gave me the foundation for the career I’ve had. When I was an undergraduate, we were on campus practically 365 days a year. There was intense focus. Our teachers were brilliant, and expectations of us were very high. It was an initiation that led to interesting work and further study and still more interesting work.  It provided the tools for a career that has given me a very good life.”   

June 3, 2011