This is Curtains

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This is Curtains

An artist's impression of Joe Magarac bending a bar of steel with his bare hands.

If your employer decides that you're the right person to commission the impossible, then there are worse places to do it than Finland. That said, one of the perils of R+D, especially for juniors in the team, is that otherwise-competent engineers can take a lot of convincing that they got their sums wrong.

I wasn't in charge at the beginning. I was basically just a trainee, more or less fresh out of Uni. It was the spring of 1981, just as the snow was receding in the armpit of Scandinavia. My boss dropped a letter as he crossed the carpark of the hotel we were staying in. Someone handed it in at reception and, because it was addressed in English, the staff then handed it to me. By the time I realised I shouldn't have been reading it, I'd learned that the only other guy who knew the software had just given his notice. This was going to be a problem, because I was already fairly sure that the process would never work.

It was a cooling system for a steel strip mill. The metallurgy is a bit arcane, but what you need to do is cool the steel at a constant rate as the mill speeds up. To do that, you have to increase the length of line that you're cooling over in proportion to the speed. Conventional systems did just that, but ours didn't. It put more water into a fixed cooling length. It was really pretty, and it could control strip temperature at a fixed point a lot better than usual, but that wasn't the right objective.

A Uni prof had warned us about this. A couple of the Finns, our customers, had worked it out too. But everyone else was entranced by cooling a ribbon of red hot steel with a perfectly clear, glass-like curtain of water. The steel just went from red to black in a dead straight line with no steam whatsoever. It was absolutely beautiful to watch, but it was also all wrong from a metallurgical quality standpoint.

The commissioning was supposed to take fourteen days, culminating in a performance trial. It took over a year to pass that trial, by which time everyone had worked out that we were flogging a rather magnificent dead horse, but these things tend to get adversarial and so I was repeatedly directed to plough on. Going by the letter of the contract, passing the trial would mean my firm would be paid in full. The properties of the steel coil we produced in the trial were way out of spec, as predicted. But arbitrary control parameters had been fully met, so we'd passed.

Fortunately sanity prevailed. Supplier and customer agreed to work together to sort it out, finally leaving a system that was butchered to the point that it looked laughable, but that nonetheless made good steel. There was to be no new product for my firm, of course. We'd just spent a great deal of time and money to finish up with something that was at best an overkill version of the conventional technology. The most enduring legacy took the form of tongue-in-cheek project T-shirts provided to its veterans.

Finland is great: I can thoroughly recommend it. With the customer's blessing, I worked on two further projects for them consecutively after that first one, and finished up spending nearly three years over there. I got to drive suicidally fast through forests and over frozen sea, to indulge in bar-brawls that would make Tyler Durden wince, to hunt animals that I'd have previously assumed to be prehistoric and all sorts of other stuff that can't be elaborated on for as long as I need to retain a reputation and/or a marriage. It's a shame, in a way, that engineering isn't like that any more. That whole enterprise was too empirical for the modern investor, and today's simulation tools would certainly have condemned it at drawing-board level.

Still, if you could use some handy phrases in Finnish, I'm your man. Or if you'd like a rather faded T-shirt, too small to fit my subsequently-bloated torso, with the words 'This is Curtains' across it. And I still cherish the picture my daughter drew me after I told her the story. I'm proud that my white elephant turned out to be a woolly mammoth.

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