Growing up in Aquebogue, Marshall Jones dreamed of becoming a pilot like the ones who flew above him in jets headed toward the nearby Grumman facility. But that aspiration was dashed around age 14, when he learned his vision wasn’t suitable for contemporary flying standards.
So Mr. Jones, who graduated from Riverhead High School in 1960, focused on wrestling, hoping to secure a scholarship in the sport and eventually become a coach. But a knee injury forced him to abandon that idea, too.
Finally, he settled on a new career path: mechanical engineering. It seems to have been the right decision.
After a 43-year career in the field, Mr. Jones, who has nearly 60 U.S. patents to his name, is being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Ohio for his contributions to manufacturing and industry. Since joining General Electric in 1974, his work with industrial lasers has entailed inventing methods to weld dissimilar metals and developing fiber optics systems to make lasers more convenient for industrial use.
“It’s so wonderful,” said Mr. Jones, 75, adding that he was surprised to learn of the honor this past fall. “I hope that it will have an impact in the future for a child to get to know about me and think, ‘Look what he did, he didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth,’ and that if you have a dream and you’re willing to work hard, you can achieve as much as I have.”
Late last month, Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, congratulated Mr. Jones in a tweet, calling him a “laser pioneer.”
“The GE family applauds you,” he wrote.
— Jeff Immelt (@JeffImmelt) January 26, 2017
While the National Inventors Hall of Fame’s selection committee was impressed by the impact of Mr. Jones’ professional success, his story of perseverance didn’t go unnoticed. Rini Paiva, the organization’s vice president of selection and recognition, said the hall of fame aims to highlight inventors’ personal stories to inspire a new generation of creators.
“It’s really so interesting what he has to say about so many obstacles he had to overcome to get where he is today,” Ms. Paiva said. “It’s really a testament to him that he’s achieved so much.”
Mr. Jones, who now lives in Schenectady, N.Y., where a GE campus is located, has described overcoming those setbacks in his 1999 memoir, “Never Give Up: The Marshall Jones Story.” Each year, he visits fourth-graders and high school students in the Riverhead school district, impressing upon them the importance of education.
Mr. Jones was a shy student who became popular among classmates for being an athlete. In his free time, he often played sports or helped out at Crescent Duck Farm, where he lived with his aunt, uncle and brother. His mother, Mildred, worked in Manhattan.
“I truly didn’t even know what an engineer was,” he said. “There was no one to look up to from that perspective.”
What Mr. Jones did know was that he was advanced in math and science and that he enjoyed taking courses in those fields — including ones that went beyond the scope of what was required in high school, such as mechanical drawing, which combined his love of math and drawing.
Reading, however, was not his strong suit, and he ended up repeating the fourth grade to improve that skill. He remembers being concerned about his younger brother, Melvin, who was also in the fourth grade, catching up to him, but said he was ultimately thankful to have repeated the grade.
When his wrestling aspirations ended at the end of high school, Mr. Jones moved to what he called “Plan B” and enrolled at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, N.Y., where he studied mechanical engineering technology. He then worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory as a draftsperson and studied mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, where he received a bachelor’s degree. Later, he earned his master’s and Ph.D. in the field at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Aquebogue Elementary School principal Phil Kent said students admire Mr. Jones after learning about his trials and that he teaches them to run with their ideas. He often encourages them to enter fields like science, technology, engineering and mathematics, noting a shortfall of STEM paths in the U.S. compared to other countries.
“The 9- and 10-year-olds start to realize, ‘Wow this is something that I could live up to when I get older,’ no matter what frame of mind or what kind of socioeconomic background they have or walk of life they go through,” Mr. Kent said.
For Mr. Jones, the reward is seeing the ideas young people come up with. Three decades ago, he helped organize a GE program that permits students to visit the facility and learn about the work its researchers do.
Both Mr. Kent and childhood friend Robert “Bubbie” Brown said Mr. Jones is humble about his accomplishments. His honors have included an award for Innovation for Laser Applications in Manufacturing Operations; the Arthur Schawlow Award, the Laser Institute of America’s highest achievement award; election to the National Academy of Engineering; and the Pioneer of the Year Golden Torch Award of the National Society of Black Engineers.
Mr. Brown, who has stayed in touch with Mr. Jones since their days of shooting marbles and digging forts in Aquebogue, remembers once being surprised by coming across a picture of his friend in a magazine. He said Mr. Jones never bragged about his success.
“He’s an incredible guy,” Mr. Brown said.
After more than four decades, Mr. Jones acknowledged that he could have retired by now, but said he’s still having fun.
His days at GE are always different, with time spent in meetings on new or ongoing projects, writing, directing research in the lab or working with businesses representing a wide range of industries. His job has taken him to countries like Japan and Germany, where he collaborates with his peers at conferences.
“I still get a buzz from it, and if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t still be working,” Mr. Jones said of creating patents. “I still get excited when something comes to fruition, when an idea ultimately ends up being implemented that didn’t exist and I had something to do with it.”
Photo caption: Aquebogue native Marshall Jones speaks to fourth-graders at Pulaski Street Elementary School in October. The GE engineer and inventor encourages students to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (Credit: Riverhead School District)