Chadwell (Chad) O’Connor, founder of OConnor Engineering, was an inventor, steam engine enthusiast, and is most remembered as the inventor of the fluid-damped camera head, an achievement for which he won an Academy Award in 1992. OConnor Engineering continues to produce camera support equipment to this day.
O’Connor’s early home environment in his native Boston likely contributed to his active mind. Johnson O’Connor, his father, was a well-known psychometrician and pioneer in the study of aptitude testing. His mother died while he was young, and his father remarried MIT-trained architect and educator Eleanor Manning. The young O’Connor acquired his interest in engineering during frequent trips to the Lynn, Massachusetts factory of his father’s employer, General Electric. O’Connor attended the Stevens Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. World War II broke out shortly after his college graduation, and O’Connor joined Douglas Aircraft where he was put in charge of expediting aircraft production and repair.
O’Connor joined Pasadena Power and Light in California after the war as chief engineer. He had been interested in steam engines since he was a boy, and he applied this knowledge at the power company to improve power production and incineration. In 1974, he used this experience to develop the O’Connor Rotary Combustor that burned municipal garbage to create steam for power generation. The first pilot plant was built in Japan. In 1980 a production facility was built in Gallatin, Tennessee that burned 200 tons of municipal waste a day. This technology was spun out of O’Connor’s company, O’Connor Engineering to a separate company that was later purchased by Westinghouse.
O’Connor’s life-long fascination with steam locomotives, which he realized were a dying breed, continued as a hobby. He became involved in the refurbishment and reproduction of classic steam locomotives, recreating the drawings and producing copies of the 119 and Jupiter locomotives that met for the driving of the first transcontinental railroad’s Golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah. He also tried his hand at photographing steam engines in motion, which led to his best known invention.
As he tried photographing moving trains, he became annoyed by the jerkiness of the pictures. To solve this problem he developed a silicon-filled platform that interfaced between the tripod and the camera to allow smooth panning and tilting of the camera. He had invented the fluid-damped camera head, a technology still utilized by top-of-the-line camera support makers worldwide.
At the time, he still viewed the head and his photography as a hobby, and she shot more than 100,000 feet of film of steam engines in action during their final days. But one day in 1952, while filming near Glendale California, another steam enthusiast tapped him on the shoulder and asked to look through the view finder. The stranger seemed to know his way around cameras, so O’Connor gave him a chance to try the head out. The man was so impressed that he asked if O’Connor could make more for him. O’Connor agreed but said it would take time as he built them in his garage. The man said, “But I need it right away. Oh, by the way, my name is Walt Disney.”
Disney was then shooting one of his first nature studies, The Living Desert, and needed a way to shoot moving animals smoothly. The O’Connor head was so successful that Disney immediately ordered 10 more. This film won the first Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 1953. O’Connor founded a part-time business in 1952 to make the heads, first building them in his garage and then from a small factory on Green Street in Pasadena, which his wife Regina ran during the day. By 1969 the business was so successful that he left the power company to work full time on camera heads and steam engines at O’Connor Engineering. He enjoyed working with cameramen, by inventing solutions for their needs. He produced thousands of OConnor fluid heads and legs, from the ever-popular O’Connor 100, so renowned for its ruggedness that it is still a staple of camerawork worldwide, to the new OConnor 120EX, which was made to complement today’s high-end film and television production.
O’Connor and Disney maintained a life-long friendship and business relationship. O’Connor designed the power systems for the steam launches and paddle wheelers at Disney World in Florida.
In 1975 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented O’Connor with a Class II Scientific and Engineering Award and in 1992, they awarded him the Academy Award of Merit, the Oscar, for his work on the fluid head. In his lifetime, O’Connor received 29 US patents.
Chad O’Connor died on September 5, 2007.