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College of Engineering
104 Marston Hall
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
(515) 294-5933
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“Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I can move the world.”

Greek inventor and mathematician Archimedes expressed the power of technology when he uttered that aphorism in the third century BC. It’s a good thing, though, that he didn’t have to submit multiple revisions of that insight in triplicate to the ancient equivalent of today’s technical journals: given the salaries of scribes and price of papyrus, it might never have reached us.

Still, if Archimedes were a chemical engineer at Iowa State today, he might be amazed at what one person can really do—given the right tools. Consider Linda Edson, chemical engineering’s “Clerk IV Extraordinaire.” More than moving mere “worlds,” Edson has helped the department’s brightest stars move themselves into even more prominent alignment in the chemical engineering constellation.

Sitting in her crowded office in Sweeney Hall, Edson hefts a massive volume from a shelf onto her desk: Organic Synthesis Engineering, L. K. Doraiswamy’s groundbreaking 2001 integration of synthetic organic chemistry with reaction engineering—nearly a thousand pages long.

In the past, authors such as Doraiswamy depended on small armies of transcribers, typists, and graphic illustrators to do what Edson accomplished by herself. So it’s no exaggeration to say that, armed with modern communications tools, support staff such as Edson are significant contributors to the accelerating advance of knowledge, freeing researchers to produce more and better scholarship in less time.

“This was a three-year project,” she says. “There’s no way I could have done this on a typewriter!”

Edson reads from the book’s acknowledgements: “The typing of this manuscript must have been a nightmare for Linda Edson, what with my ceaseless corrections, changes in format, and endless additions, modifications, and deletions of figures and tables.” She closes the tome and smiles: Edson knows “nightmares.” This, she says, was no nightmare.

“When I started with ChemE,” Edson recalls, “manuscripts for journal articles had to be typed in their entirety at least three times. They’d do a rough draft, make changes, then submit it to the journal. It would come back for corrections and retyping.” It was, in short, a universe largely alien to many younger faculty and virtually all ChE students today—people who might use slide rules to prop up their laptops.

“We didn’t have any way to merge information,” Edson continues, “so every letter had to be ‘original.’ If you were sending out 64 form letters, you had to type 64 letters. Typing equations was pretty laborious too.”

Edson cut her teeth on “laborious” when she first came to Iowa State in the summer of 1970. “I was going to be a senior in high school,” she says. “They put me in Ames Lab as part of an on-the-job-training program in office education. My first job was to type the Ames Lab telephone directory.”

Edson signed on full-time at Ames Lab after graduation until, in 1983, she landed a job with chemical engineering. And though there weren’t any phone books to type, her tools were still primitive by today’s standards. (Older readers will know what we’re talking about. You kids, turn off “That ‘70s Show” and stay with us for a minute.)

“When I was hired,” Edson remembers, “we had one Commodore computer and shared a daisy-wheel printer. We used electric typewriters and carbon paper for final copies of correspondence. We’d use mimeographs for class work—Xerox machines weren’t around yet.”

It gets better.

“We couldn’t transfer phone calls ourselves; we had to go through the university operator. We had these heavy, black rotary-dial phones—it was simply the state of the technology.” Edson smiles. “That’s how long I’ve been here.”

OK, enough of the walking-to-school-uphill-both-ways-barefoot-through-the-snow-in-August-when-I-was-a-kid business. That isn’t what Edson is about anyway. The larger point, she’ll tell you, is that the right tools have enabled her to realize her genuine talent for organization—and, in the process, make herself invaluable to her department.

Besides helping make Doraiswamy and other ChE luminaries look good, today that means everything from being the college’s unofficial “database queen”—other departments use her templates for tracking everything from faculty publications to student records—to deftly managing aspects of the department’s annual report, the Larson-Ruth Symposium, and the Association for Crystallization Technology meeting. Edson’s dedication and “Archimedean” talent for leveraging the tools of modern communications were recognized with the Dean’s Staff Excellence Award in 2001.

When not pushing modern office technology to its limits, Edson enjoys cooking, baking, and, with husband Tom, camping and spoiling two grandchildren, ages 6 and 4—a task we hope technology never changes. “I’ve always wanted to be a grandma,” she says, “and I’m having the time of my life!”

Even world-movers need to relax now and then.
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