First Black PhD recipient was on a mission

Thomas Cannon Jr., who also earned his BS and MS from the School, attributes his parents' examples, Purdue education and determined nature for his career success.

Thomas Cannon, Jr. was flat told “don’t do it.”

His boss at AT&T Bell Labs didn’t want Cannon investigating a solution to a costly problem. It was the 1980s, the early years of fiber optic communications, and an optical fiber connector, simply, was what it was, a $250 piece.

But Cannon couldn’t live with that directive. He knew those connectors weren’t the answer. They were too expensive. They didn’t work.

And he knew he could do better.

Thomas Cannon Jr
Thomas Cannon Jr.

That was the innovator in him. It was the confidence. It was the determination.

From the moment he left Houston to attend Purdue University in 1960, Cannon had been on a mission. To make his parents proud, to affect change, to serve the greater good.

At nearly every step throughout his 50-year career after becoming the first Black man to receive a Ph.D. from the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Cannon made good on that mission.

Of course, there were failures, were years spent on projects that never materialized, were obstacles along the way — that’s the life of an engineer. But Cannon continually was spurred by the challenges, brimming with assurance born from his beginnings.

“Backing me up was the excellent education I got at Purdue University and the mentorship I got from my major professor, Dr. Joseph Genin. That was a strength,” said Cannon, who earned his bachelor’s in 1964 and his master’s in 1966. “Plus, I came from a family of people who were successful. Both my mother and my father, Black people, graduated from college. So I had a generation of success behind me. I think that gave me a lot of confidence. Also, the fact that I not only could took courses at Purdue, I taught courses at Purdue, which meant I really knew the stuff.

“Even in cases where I didn’t know the answer ahead of time, I was confident and I was determined enough to figure it out. Because I knew where my strength lies. My strength lies not in being the most brilliant guy but the most determined guy. I just put in more hours and more work than anybody I knew. So I had that to rely on.”

And Cannon could go back to the boss he defied, hand him a new connector the team had developed and say, “I have something to show you, a new connector that has no flaws.” And watch the boss grab the connector from his hand, throw it across the room, see it bounce off the wall. And then wait, knowing it was obvious Cannon had done exactly what he was told not to do. And then see his supervisor’s smile, hear “I like it.” And take a breath, knowing he still had a job.

The ST Connector developed by the team incorporated some of the technologies and innovations Cannon had used on previous work, and it went on to become the world’s most widely manufactured optical fiber connector.

And cost only $2.50.

“I’m very, very proud of that,” Cannon said. “I’m proud of the fact I convinced my team of guys to do it, even though they knew we weren’t supposed to do it. I was doing it and they were doing it for the greater good.”

That wasn’t the only time Cannon pulled off what seemed like an engineering miracle.

Two years after developing the ST Connector, Cannon was approached by the United States Army Signal Corps. They still were living in World War II, they said, needing to string copper cables across the battlefield in order to communicate. Cables that emitted radiation, that could be detected and, even, tapped. They needed an optical fiber cable.

Cannon was given the bleak facts: Multiple cable and connector manufacturers already had failed to meet their requirements, there was only $100,000 left to find a solution and they needed a solution within one year.

Cannon didn’t hesitate to accept the assignment.

Ten months later, he delivered not only a design but 25 tool-made samples and handed back $10,000. That connector, called a “Tactical Fiber Optical Connector Assembly,” first saw action in Operation Desert storm, transmitting firing signals to the Patriot Missile, and still is in use today in the PAC-3 missile defense system, Cannon said.

“Under my leadership, my teams were able to do some extraordinary things that would not happen if I was not there,” Cannon said.

That connector was one of 24 patents Cannon has been granted throughout his career, and he’s literally written the book on innovation (“Thinking Like an Innovator: From Idea to Income”).

He’s certainly proud of such accomplishments, so many in the face of considerable doubt, but those may not be the legacy he leaves in the aerospace and Black communities.

Just as important and defining in Cannon’s career has been his willingness and passion for teaching and mentoring.

He admits that teaching is in his blood — father Thomas Cannon, Sr., ultimately became a teacher; mother, Lillian, was a teacher; and other relatives taught as well. Cannon Jr. easily could have gone down that path.

During graduate school at Purdue, he was assigned engineering mechanics courses. The sections he taught saw students excel, so much one professor in charge of the course accused Cannon of “teaching the tests.” Cannon neither made up the tests nor graded them. He simply knew the material well and, he said, taught it well.

Gus Gustafson, a longtime professor in AAE, recognized Cannon’s teaching gifts. Late in Cannon’s last semester of Ph.D. work, Cannon remembers Gustafson approaching him and asking if he’d considered teaching as a career. Cannon’s response: “I want to experience the challenge in industry.”

Fifty-some years later, Cannon said that initial response was misguided, so he did course-correct in ways later in his career, holding yearly seminars, for one, in conjunction with Purdue’s Black Cultural Center.

He also placed an emphasis on mentoring, especially Black men and women, starting with his first job out of Purdue at Bell Labs. Cannon stayed at Purdue for graduate school, he said, because Black people weren’t being hired in the aerospace industry in 1964, after he completed his bachelor’s. So he stuck around for his master’s, amid the civil rights movement, and finally saw the industry shift by the conclusion of his Ph.D. in 1970.

Cannon appreciates his time at Purdue for the knowledge it imparted, both technically and culturally.

He’d chosen Purdue because a former classmate at Jack Yates High School had left for West Lafayette and provided a feel for what it’d be like, and Cannon also knew the University offered scholarships for freshmen. He chose aeronautical engineering because it provided “the new technology available, and I wanted to be part of that.”

Cannon entered Purdue with reservations about whether he could compete with other students, despite finishing high in his senior class. An early English class revealed the answer, as he recalled being the only student with the correct response about Greek philosopher Diogenes, and his nearly all-As the next semester further validated he belonged.

Even if some professors were trying to hold him back.

Cannon remembered one thermodynamics professor gave him a “B,” even though Cannon knew he’d gotten higher test scores than a classmate who got an “A.” There were more such slights during his undergrad, he said. But coming from a segregated high school, Cannon chose to look at each injustice as an opportunity to build fortitude.

“Purdue wasn’t the most hospitable place for a Black male. You can imagine things that were just unfair,” he said. “Considering where I came from, an all-black segregated environment, I didn’t see that stuff at Jack Yates High School. I didn’t see that from the teachers or the students, but I saw that at Purdue. That and other things, and it helped me because I had to deal with those things, whether they were fair or not. It equipped me to deal with those same type of issues that I would always face once I got into the real world.”

There were advocates at Purdue. Cannon connected with Genin, a professor in aeronautical engineering, in graduate school when Cannon was the graduate associate for one of Genin’s courses.

Cannon called Genin “courageous” for taking him on as a Ph.D. student.

“He took some heat for that,” Cannon said. “But he took me on, and he nurtured me. He opened my eyes to a lot of things. I never would have gotten my PhD if I wasn’t under his wing.”

By the end of his time at Purdue, Cannon felt prepared to take the next step.

“I learned rigorous ways of attacking technical problems. I learned more than just one way of attacking a problem, and that served me well throughout my career,” Cannon said. “Some of these ways were very, very powerful, but I learned it. More important than that, once I became a graduate instructor, I had to teach them. I found out there’s a world of difference between an ‘A’ student and an instructor. An ‘A’ student can memorize it for a semester, maybe, but an instructor really had to understand it. That understanding served me well on numerous occasions when I got into industry.”

Like with the ST connector.

And the Tactical Fiber Optical Connector Assembly.

And when he diagnosed a problem with a military rocket, which had an igniter that habitually inadvertently fired, and came up with a solution that eliminated the fault that cost 30 cents.

Cannon views all of it as “executing in your job.”

“If the truth be told, 95 percent of the work that engineers do is worthless. Worthless because it didn’t pan out, the approach was faulty, or the market changed or the business changed. You have a successful development effort, successful in regard to meeting its objectives, but it never sees the light of day. A lot of work you do is a learning process,” Cannon said. “If I were to honestly look back at my career and say, ‘OK, how productive was it?’ Well, it was 5 percent productive. And that’s better than zero. You just have to say OK, let’s move on to the next way of approaching this problem or let’s move on to the next project.

“As you accumulate experience, it makes you more likely to succeed in your next engineering project. There’s an old saying in engineering, ‘Confidence is what you have before you fully understand the problem.’ I’ll vouch for the validity of that. You go into it and you find out how difficult it really is and you have to just devise ways to accomplish the objective, despite the difficulties.”