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Memories surface as Martin Tower demolition loomsRetired engineer recalls use of early computers in designing Martin Tower

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Gordon Baker points to an example of the kind of drawing his team would receive from architects to construct beams for Martin Tower, the former home of Bethlehem Steel's white-collar workforce. PHOTO/STACY WESCOE
Gordon Baker points to an example of the kind of drawing his team would receive from architects to construct beams for Martin Tower, the former home of Bethlehem Steel's white-collar workforce. PHOTO/STACY WESCOE

Martin Tower, the former Bethlehem Steel headquarters, stood for nearly 50 years as the Lehigh Valley's tallest building.

Finished in 1972, the 332-foot building took the title from the 322-foot PPL Tower in Allentown, erected in 1928. PPL Tower may soon regain its throne, as Martin Tower may be enjoying its final days as part of the Lehigh Valley skyline.

Sitting vacant for more than a decade and after several revitalization plans came and went, the decision was finally made to bring down the once-grand structure.

No details on how or when the building will be demolished have been released, but it could happen as early as this year, according to city officials.

And while the building’s current owners, Lou Ronca and Norton Herrick, advance on plans to demolish the 21-story building in Bethlehem, one of the men instrumental in the construction of Martin Tower remembers when the historic building was just a sketch drawing by the architects.

A ONCE-BUSTLING HIVE

Bethlehem Steel retiree Gordon Baker, 80, who lives in the Fellowship Community in Whitehall, said he looks back in pride at the structure he and his colleagues built, for which, he said, “no expense was spared.”

The building was designed by architect Haines Lundberg Waehler and built by George A. Fuller Construction Co., the same company that built the Flat Iron Building in New York City.

For nearly 20 years Martin Tower was a bustling hive of the white-collar workers of Bethlehem Steel, which at the time was one of the largest steel producers in the world.

When he first got the plans, the project for a new office tower didn’t seem like that big of a deal, Baker said.

As an engineer in the company’s Leetsdale fabrications division, Baker was used to big projects. He was involved, for example, in the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York.

And while in some ways Martin Tower was just another big job, he said, in other ways it did more than change the Lehigh Valley skyline, it changed the future of building.

Things got interesting, he said, during the design work.

AN INFANT TECHNOLOGY

The plotter devices that were traditionally used to design buildings and there components were rather slow and people working to design Martin Tower’s steel structure were anxious to see the plans come together.

“Someone, not me, came up with the idea ‘why not do it on a business computer,’ and it worked,” Baker said.

He said many aspects of what they needed to do were similar to applications that early computers were used for.

For example, they needed to calculate the weight of every piece of the structure.

“Most [steel] jobs back then were sold like steak – by the pound,” he said. Rather than using traditional drafting methods to determine how much steel would be used and how much it would weigh, the engineers used the computer.

Normally, he said, draftsmen – and at the time they would be all men – would draw pictures of every beam that would go into a building like Martin Tower.

But modern computing was just starting to take off and the technology, while in its infancy, was available for experiments.

So instead, they had draftsmen fill out a key-punch card, an early method of inputting information into computers.

“They would fill out a key-punch form using a key punch and out came the picture,” Baker said.

Baker said the team worked closely with IBM to adapt the business-oriented computer to an engineering team’s needs.

For example, since the team was using a printer, rather than traditional drafting tools, changes needed to be made to the way a printer printed.

Computers printers then used typewriter-like cartridges that were generally designed with alpha-numeric characters. The ones used at Bethlehem Steel were no different.

But the team didn’t want to draw their beams in a’s and b’s, Baker said. They needed a printer that could print lines.

“We worked with IBM to develop a [printer] cartridge that instead of a, b, c would print out segments and lines,” Baker said.

When the team needed to create drafts of its beams they simply took out the alpha-numeric cartridge and put in their special one.

“The printer thought it was printing an ‘a’, but it was really printing a line and we got our picture,” he said.

The image would then be printed out on the kind of continuous-feed printer paper that remained in use through the early 1990s.

In using the computer, Baker said the engineers could provide all the information needed to the architectural engineer who was designing the project.

Every time-saver helped. He noted that there was no email back then. Plans had to be physically delivered for people to review.

But with the computer-generated plan, he could see that the team had, for example, put in enough bolts in each end of a beam to hold the amount of weight it was supposed to hold up.

“This program made the approval much faster,” Baker said.

To the best of Baker’s knowledge, and based on what the IBM officials told him, this was the first time engineers used a computer to design a steel structure, but it soon became the standard protocol at Bethlehem Steel and was used by other engineers evolving into the computer systems used by engineers today.

So while many may consider the building to be obsolete in 2019, at one time it was as innovative as it was grand.

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Stacy Wescoe

Stacy Wescoe

Reporter Stacy Wescoe has her finger on the pulse of the business community in the Greater Lehigh Valley and keeps you up-to-date with technology and trends, plus what coworkers and competitors are talking about around the water cooler — and on social media. She can be reached at stacyw@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4104. Follow her on Twitter at @morestacy and on Facebook. Circle Stacy Wescoe on .

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