At age 13, he built a large and very detailed model that won second prize in a ship model competition in the Spirit of Youth Exposition at the Philadelphia Commercial Museum. He was sick the day of the presentation and had to stay home, but his mother took the model to the museum in a taxi for him. Phil is still proud of that first award but has lost track of the ship model.
In 1943, Phil was drafted into the Army as a private. Because of his training in mechanical engineering and machine design at Stevens Institute in New Jersey, he was assigned to the Manhattan Project in New York. This was the top secret project to design the first atomic bomb. He became a Master Sergeant and specialist in seals and pumps and ended up working for several contractors making specialized equipment during the course of the project.
After the war in 1946 Phil left the army and studied physics at George Washington University while working for the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Silver Spring, MD. This led to an assignment working on the first subsonic guided missiles until about 1950. From then until 1958 he worked for Vitro Corporation on ordinance projects including torpedo guidance systems. From 1958 until his retirement in 1978 he worked for General Atomic in San Diego in the design and construction of nuclear power plants. He became the supervisor for the high level “hot cell” where the highly radioactive material is worked on with remote slave hands. A lot of special jigs and fixtures had to be designed to get this sensitive equipment to work safely and efficiently.
When Phil entered the service and married his wife Helen in 1943, his spare time was in short supply and his modeling projects were put on hold for many years until his kids entered college. They have three children: Claudia is a high school science teacher, Greg is a medical doctor and Rebecca is a career planner at Humboldt State College. By the mid 1960’s Phil again had the time and went back into modeling, although he did take about 12 years off between 1972 and 1984 to build a 40’ motor-sailboat in his back yard. (Though he and his wife had plans for long-distance sailing adventures, the reality of seasickness took the fun out of open ocean sailing for them and they sold the boat a few years after its completion.) Throughout his life he was always interested in boats and sailing and, in addition to his detailed models he has built many pond sailers—both free sailing variety and radio controlled. He also enjoys wood carving.
As a matter of interest, Phil was asked why two of the tiny models he built were the same ship but in different scales. The first Norwegian trawler is about 2” long while the second is about an inch long. Phil says that after a long spell of working on his house or on full size projects it takes him a while to get back his modeling skills. He first built the smallest model he could. Then, when his skills were honed, he built one half that size. Then he knew he was ready to go back to work on the scale ship model he was building at the time. Fine scale modeling, like any skill that requires dexterity, must be practiced in order to stay sharp. Even craftsmen of Phil’s skill level must sometimes work up to (or down to) some projects with a little practice beforehand.
In April, 2002, Phil Mattson was given a special recognition award for his lifelong achievement in modeling by the Joe Martin Foundation for Exceptional Craftsmanship. A check for $500 accompanied the award. From his first award from the Philadelphia Museum in 1933 to this award in 2002, Phil Mattson’s modeling career spans 69 years of excellence and shows no signs of slowing down at age 82.
Phil Mattson passed away in March, 2013