'A Day in the Life of Joe Tomlin'
by Michael Ryland

Joe Tomlin has been a member of the Wellington Underwater Club for 48 years (having joined in 1952), which is a fantastic achievement.
I remember Joe well, seeing him regularly at monthly Club meetings.  He lived in Upper Hutt in those days but moved to Tairua in December 1969.  This was not to retire, but simply to cease to employ staff and now work by himself at a more enjoyable location which Joe and Ruth (his wife) could better enjoy through a change in life style.

An inventive mind, of undoubted MENSA quality and capacity, Joe is very modest about things he has made and describes himself as "the glue" which brings ideas and designs together.  He embraces colleagues and contacts in the resulting machinery he has put together, over the years, attributing much of it to them.  However, I can tell you that much of it is exclusively his brainchild, and none of it would have happened without Joe.
When the Paremata rail bridge was built, the false work (piles and framework which formed the platform from which the bridge was built) had to be removed.  Launches were called in to snap off the piles.  However, this left jagged topped ten foot stumps sticking out of the mud.  This was unacceptable and so Dive Work Ltd was called in to cut them off.  That meant Joe Tomlin, Peter Strong (a foundation WUC member), and the late Warwick Hurdley got the contract.  To deal with the problem the team made an underwater chainsaw, (ten years ahead of its time).  The hydraulically driven chainsaw could cut through a 450 mm blue gum pile in 4 minutes and a 300 mm pine pile in 1½ minutes.  (The CIA got to hear of this.)
Another first was the underwater cutting torch (or gas axe).  Joe's ingenuity and a suggestion from NZIG saw a shield nurture a bubble over the flame which kept it alive at light up start.  I well remember Joe telling a few of us, at a Club night, how he had been cutting through steel bolts, at the Paremata Bridge, when a curious kingfish had come in for a close look at what he was doing.  Surprised that the kingi should come in only a couple of feet away, Joe immediately swung the cutting torch around and held it over the fish's head.  A couple of seconds later the kingfish's brains were cooked.  Joe turned off the gas axe, grabbed the quivering 20 lb kingi and lifted it out of the water, saying something like, "are you guys just going to stand there gawking, or are you going to give me a hand with lunch?"

Two Easters ago, on the first of the Club trips to Peter McIntyre's dad's batch at Kuaotunu (23 km north of Whitianga) I found myself overnighting at Tairua.  I had needed to deliver Peter Silvester to John Young's yacht "BLACKADDER", on the Thursday evening, before Easter.  On Good Friday morning I phoned Joe, from the motel, and invited myself over.  I had Spoken with Joe a number of times in recent years, by phone, and in the previous week had said that I hoped to call in.

Think of the three famous people in the world with whom you would most like to spend an hour or two talking (e.g. Sir Edmund Hillary).  Well, three hours with Joe Tomlin passes as quickly as one with any of your chosen celebrities.  I was blessed with having 5½ hours in Joe's company and yet it seemed like less than two.  Indeed, were it not for my desire to find my way to the batch at Kuaotunu in the daylight and some compassionate regard for Joe to resume work on the dozens of mechanical workings, pressing for his attention in his workshop, I might still be there.
When I arrived Joe came out of his downstairs workshop to greet me dressed in shorts, T‑shirt, and glasses.  After a cheery handshake and pleasantries we walked around their large garden, which contains several feijoa trees and even more citrus trees.
Back at the house we talked in the sun for a while, before venturing into the Aladdin's Cave of treasures in the workshop.  At 34 feet by 36 feet the 1200 square foot workshop occupies the entire ground floor of the house, apart from the garage, the laundry, and a toilet.  Typical of Joe, at the foot of the steps leading up to the living area, there is a bell.  One presses that to summons Joe.  The bell rings both in the workshop and loudly outside so it can be heard from the garden.  However, when Joe goes upstairs he simply turns a switch and now a sweeter ring responds in the house above.
Not a large man, physically, Joe looked incredibly fit to me and some 15 years more youthful than his 79 years, at that time.  Standing on the grass in the sun, prior to entering the workshop, I could not help observing that Joe has decent sized feet.  As he spoke, Joe was toying at the tropical Kikuyu grass with his feet.  His agile toes were wriggling so independently I was convinced he could make more with his feet than most of the rest of us could with our hands.

Inside the workshop there are machines everywhere, with bounteous raw materials crammed into every available space.  Metal tubes and rods, of various diameters, stored in overhead racks.  Sheet steel in lower racks near a cutting machine and a nearby metal press.  Of course, there is a full size lathe, and a drill press and a band saw.  Shelving with a myriad of equipment, and dials, and meters.  Cupboards with even more valuable and specialised equipment.  Electrical and welding equipment.  There is even a sandblasting booth.

Joe is a master craftsman Horologist (by exam).  That's an expert watchmaker to you guys.  However, his training is to such a level that he is comparable to a brain surgeon in medicine.  Joe had a father and two uncles in the trade.  Naturally, there is an inner sanctum, in the workshop, where watchmaking activities and watch and clock repairs take place.

Joe was in the Airforce for 5 years (mainly in Britain) as an instrument repairer.
A customer of Joe's, Trevor Barber, from neighbouring Pauanui, brought around for repair an English Bracket Clock manufactured around the year 1750, the clock was a family heirloom.  It had been given to Webb's, the antique auctioneers of Auckland, for valuation purposes only, and was said to be worth some $4,600.
However, the clock would not strike and Trevor had taken it to jewellers (who, for this article, shall remain nameless) for repair.  The old watchmaker, at the jewellers, had taken 3 wheels out of the workings of the clock and sent them to England for repair.  Some time had elapsed and in the meantime the old guy had died, but unfortunately had made no record of where the parts had been sent.  When Trevor enquired after the clock he was told that it could not be repaired and gave it back to him leaving Trevor to believe that the workings were all there.
It was at this point that Joe received the clock and, naturally, was horrified at the misrepresentation the jewellers had put over on Trevor.  With only one wheel missing it would have been possible to calculate the weight and diameter and, importantly, the number of teeth on the wheel.  However, with three wheels missing the mathematics required grew exponentially.  You guessed it!  Joe was able to get the clock fully working again.  In its fully operating state a return visit of the clock, to Webb's confirmed a revised valuation of over $17,000 (four times its previous value).  Joe's matter of fact modesty decries this accomplishment, saying that the gearing ratio on a striking wheel is not as critical as it would be on a time-keeping wheel.
Joe also made gold earrings.  For this he didn't need the shop in Upper Hutt with two watchmakers apart from himself, and a shop assistant in addition to his wife Ruth, but merely a good postal service.
It was at this point that they moved to Tairua.  Joe would make 1,000 pairs of gold sleeper earrings a month.  He had set up various machining jigs to speed up the process and could make a pair of earrings in 20 minutes.  It would take a jeweller 2 hours to do the same.  However, after a time and motion study Joe made he was able to trim several minutes off the time.
The trouble was he had to countersink the hole he drilled in the earrings before he put the pin in, which was only .3 of a millimetre in diameter, and the dexterity of his fingers began to fail after 300 pairs.  With years of work the thumb on Joe's right hand is nearly twice the size of the one on his left hand.
Dealing in almost microscopic measurements the lengths were difficult to be consistent with manually.  The pin was 1.45mm long.  The finished length, when riveted, was .97mm.  The pin first had to go through the hole and then be cut off.  Getting this exact manually was a real challenge, so while Joe was lying in hospital, recovering from a hernia operation, he designed a machine (in his head) to do these tricky bits.  This reduced the manufacturing time to 2 minutes, 8 seconds a pair.
Joe was quite proud of the minuscule 5 flutes he was able to put on the shaft of the pins.  This meant that the pin completely filled the hole under riveting, and was smooth on the outside.

Joe was made a Life Member of the Wellington Underwater Club in recognition of his work on the Standards Institute Committee.  Every S.C.U.B.A. diver in New Zealand owes Joe a vote of thanks for air quality that can safely be relied upon in present times.  This was not always the case.
One early service station in Auckland had an air intake pipe which emerged in the gutter in the street.  At times this would suck in carbon monoxide and toxic exhaust fumes direct from vehicles.  This resulted in some divers suffering giddiness, headaches, coughing, vomiting, and blurred vision, frequently occurring underwater.
With Joe's guidance a testing method was devised.  This consisted of a basketball bladder and two sheets of cardboard with holes (one large, one smaller) suspended over and under each other, vertically.  It is rather difficult to test air directly out of a S.C.U.B.A. tank, at that pressure, and even more difficult to have a consistent test volume of air without using an intermediate container.  Hence the bladder.
Filled to slightly greater than the size of the larger upper hole, air was bled out until the bladder would drop through the first hole.  Then a tube, containing crystals that would test for a set problem, e.g. carbon monoxide, would be connected to the bladder.  Air would again be bled off until the bladder could drop through the smaller second hole.  This would exactly pass a sample 1 litre of air over the crystals and register any impurities for that classification.  The bladder would be reinflated from the same tank and the test repeated using different crystals to test for different toxins.
The test was repeated exhaustively until that tank of air was vindicated or rejected and so that filling station continued in operation, or otherwise.
Joe was also involved in the standard for oxygen purity.

In the watchmaking area of his workshop Joe opened a narrow drawer in a storage cabinet and took out a capsule filled with watch parts he had made.  (The capsule was little bigger than an antibiotic capsule one might swallow.)  Joe spilled out two or three of these "balance staffs" onto the bench then herded all except one back into the capsule.  To me, these minute objects are barely discernible to the human eye.  Joe drew one on a sheet of paper, highly magnified for me, in about a 3 inch square area.  Then he gave me a jeweller's eyeglass through which to view the balance staff, all the while reminding me of angles and shaft diameters, which are critical.  The pivots are 9/100 of a millimetre in diameter.  That is approximately three times the thickness of a western human hair.  A balance staff, together with hair spring and balance wheel, all form the heart of a watch.  Joe can make a balance staff in twenty minutes.  To do this he uses a lathe so diminutive that its driving belts remind me of the drill used by the school dental nurse.
Some of the technical information Joe imparted to me was so heady in its minute measurements and mathematical calculations that I was looking around for a chair to sit down on before I swooned.  The only break we had in 5½ hours was when Ruth very kindly and hospitably called us for lunch.
In spite of being a watchmaker, when with Joe one is oblivious to the passing of time.  There is no pedestal tall enough to stand Joe Tomlin on, by my assessment.  If only cloning were legal, what a boon to science half a dozen young Joes might be.

Joe has recently sold the plane he built over 13 years, having effectively been grounded by the $1,500 six monthly medical costs required to maintain his pilot's licence, since his 80th birthday in March.  The plane was a French designed JODEL model 11 (two seater trainer).  Built from a 30 foot long by ½ metre Sitka Spruce log from Canada and birch plywood from Finland, with some of its 3 ply down to as little as 1.2mm in thickness, it was a very forgiving plane to fly.

Joe is driving down to the Club's 50th Jubilee at Labour Weekend with his wife Ruth.  They will collect Peter Strong (one of our foundation members) from Tauranga.  This should give many of you the opportunity to talk with this incredible man.

 
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