Arthur Nickless

The A.H. Nickless Innovation Award: Art’s story

How many 10-year-old daughters had a father who convinced them to learn the Morse code? Our Dad did, and we learned it. We were also introduced to the fine points of the oscilloscope as well as how electrical current could pass through a class of fourth-graders holding hands in a circle. Ant farms, barometric weather stations, cloud charts, magnetic devices and math teasers were all standard fare in the Nickless household. Our Dad built our first TV (10-inch square screen) in 1949, followed by a microwave oven in 1960.

Arthur Howard Nickless was born in Bay City, Michigan, on March 21, 1923, the youngest of four children. At age 14 – already driving because he worked at his father’s Chevrolet dealership, and since he was the last one at home – he was expected to chauffeur his grandmother all summer up at the family cottage on the Au Sable River outside Roscommon. But since he was bored and loved gadgets and electricity, he decided to single-handedly wire the cottage – previously lit only by kerosene lamps – for electrical lighting, which he did successfully.

Another example of Art’s determination to follow his passion for innovative efforts occurred when he was in junior high school. Art and another boy became fast friends, as they both were into electronics. They worked in this boy’s garage, and in the winter they heated it by going around to local schools to collect old coal that had fallen out of the chutes in order to keep their stove going.

One Christmas, Art’s grandmother gave him $5 (a huge amount in the late 1930s!), so he bought a 1916 Indian Motorcycle engine, which Art and his friend cleaned and greased up. They built a 6-foot long go-kart out of two-by-fours with a platform right behind the driver’s seat where the engine was located. They welded a solid steel axle shaft onto the back of the engine, to which they bolted a propeller they had carved out of another two-by-four. They attached old rubber shoe heels onto a hinged U-shaped two-by-four for brakes.

To run the engine, they wound a chain around a sprocket only slightly bigger than a bicycle. In their enthusiasm and naïveté, they started the engine in the garage and headed out, only to look back and see that the propeller had carved chunks out of the manicured bushes lining the long driveway. Art figured out that they drove around town at 22 mph, completely unaware that if the welding on the propeller shaft failed, the propeller would have launched and killed anybody it hit. (Note: Years later, Art could describe in detail how they should have constructed it to make it a safely operating vehicle.)

A graduate of Bay City Central High School, Art and another student operated the PA system at the high school. At his own admission, academics were not Art’s strong suit, but experimenting and inventing were. Very interested in electronics in the 1930s, Art and a good friend made the rounds of radio repair shops to pick up “trash” parts from which they made transmitters. They built the transmitters so they could transmit their own frequency from the garage, tuning both the transmitter and Art’s car radio to the same frequency in order to see how far he could drive and still get reception.

In September 1941, Art went off to Tri-State College in Angola, Indiana, to pursue a degree in electrical engineering. However, in the spring of 1942, with World War II on, he and other friends volunteered for the Army. Art eventually served as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps through the end of the war.

He married his high school sweetheart, Helen Marie Miller, Jan. 3, 1945, and together they raised their family of three daughters (Joan, Janet and Judy) in Millington and then Bay City. In 1946, Art came back from the war to work for Dow Corning in Midland for $.90 an hour.

In November 1948, his entrepreneurial spirit prompted him to act on an ad in the Bay City Times to buy the Millington Independent Telephone Company for $23,000 from 595 subscribing farmers who owned it. As an example of his innovative spirit, in 1957 Art instituted an eight-minute phone call time limit because there were too many people on one phone line. Eighty percent of the phone subscribers supported this initiative until it became economically and practically feasible to put in more phone lines in this small rural community.

Along with loving and caring for his family and running the independent telephone business, Art built and flew remote-controlled airplanes; was a private pilot participating in the Civil Aviation’s Dawn Patrols; and in the late 1950s had the thrill of following the Alaskan Highway, flying up to the Yukon in a single-engine Cessna. He had a mind for numbers and would challenge anyone to beat him at either gin rummy or bridge (but don’t bet on winning!). In his later years, he took up chasing the little white ball around golf courses in Michigan and Arizona.

Retiring in 1988, Art’s career in the telephone communications industry spanned more than 40 years throughout the mid-Michigan area. He was widely respected for improvements he suggested and devices he invented for various kinds of telephone equipment. His interest in communications remained keen, and he eagerly jumped into the personal computer age. A visitor to his office in his last home in Sun City West, Ariz., would witness a well-organized span of the latest and greatest computer gizmos. He was well-known among his “senior” friends as a computer “geek” and was often called upon to install, teach and repair computers.

At the core of this extraordinary man’s life was his unbounded generosity for those in need. Space does not permit us to describe his unassuming efforts to provide computers for underserved schools, starting foundations that provide scholarships for high school students and countless occasions of helping individuals who needed an extra boost to “take the next step” in life. The A.H. Nickless Innovation Award is one way we as his daughters can express our profound love, admiration and respect for the man we call “Dad.”