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A Work in Process - By 'eck, we had it tough !

September 1, 2016

30 years ago today I started my first "proper" job at Stone & Webster (now part of Technip) in Milton Keynes, which is (in)famous as the location of Superman IV. I watched the filming from our offices, so maybe that makes me an extra (in fact I did go on to 'star' - again as a member of the crowd - in another Hollywood blockbuster A Shot at Glory). My first improper job was a student placement at ICI/Nobel Explosives (yes the same Peace Prize guy) the previous year.

I was straight out of University with a degree in "Advanced Plumbing" aka Chemical and Process Engineering and was still only 20 (I tell my kids I left school at 16 and look where it got me) as you could do that in Scotland and still fit in a 4 year BSc(Hons) - apparently I'm a Scientist not an Engineer!

I learned how to do Line Lists using Lotus 1-2-3 and we had to manually fill in (not punch) cards (like lottery tickets where you black out boxes) so "Deep Thought" could crank its way through HTRI calculations and then several hours later you find out you'd made a mistake and have to start again. Ironically we were only 4 miles from Bletchley Park so it might have been quicker to send somebody on a bike to run reboiler models through Colossus.

My starting salary was £9,000 a year and we had a female Prime Minister (déjà vu), Brent Crude was $14 a barrel and beer was 75p a pint. The M25 was finished (still feels like it's still being commissioned) and Top Gun was the must-see film that year (allegedly). Back then I wanted to be "Maverick" now I think time has aged me and I'm now "Jester" - with the wise, jolly face to prove it!

Those of you of a certain age (or comical persuasion) may remember this Monty Python sketch...

 which had great lines including...

I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing "Hallelujah."


Even now it seems I'm getting up before I go to bed and pay to come to work.
Calculators were Reverse Polish (no Brexit jokes please) and although I didn't use log tables, I did spend a lot of time in Steam Tables. Needless to say we didn't have the luxury of mobile phones or laptops (in fact I used 5¼ inch floppy discs for longer than I care to remember), Amazon was still a rain-forest, the only drones we had were from our bagpipes and this was both my Wikipedia and Google:

We had to use specific coloured pens to markup P&IDs (Red to add, Green for annotation & Blue to delete - I think) and I don't know if this was a parochial thing or something that followed/spawned MS-Office Track Changes Ink colours. Later on I had to scrape the back of vellum drawings with a razor blade to correct mistakes and can still recall the smell of ammonia developer when we had to make blueprints. I will admit to loving the smell of solvents (MIBK, Toluene & Phenol are particular favourites) and welding (obviously not at same time),

But you try and tell the young people today that... and they won't believe ya'.

I've had the pleasure of personally meeting Trevor Kletz (ironically in Milton Keynes - but long after I left S&W) and was in attendance when (I'd be lying if I said I met) the Queen (and the Chookyembra) opened a new plant at our Beecham's site in Irvine (I didn't stay long enough to appreciate the plastic cows and headed North of the Wall to my ain folk). I think I may have met Carol Vorderman when she was still a (Civil) Engineer (something to do with Ian Fells - not a Countdown convention) and I do remember meeting Trevor Baylis (the inventor not the cricketer) . Maybe I'm just drawn to Trevors (or those with honours).

So here's to the next 30 years, alas we'll still have major incidents and we may be fighting over water not oil and remember that technology doesn't make you smarter - it just means your mistakes are quicker and more public.

You know that they say - "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be".


In a previous post - I'd suggested we all try to fulfil the 1st rule of process safety (law enforcement):

"Make sure when your shift is over you go home alive"

I've now become aware (via this month's TCE magazine) of Ó Súilleabháin's First Law of Engineering...

"The primary duty of the chemical engineer is to retire, not having killed anyone"


Thankfully I'm still compliant with both, and since Trevor Kletz kept working beyond his 80th year, I reckon I've got another 30 years ahead of me to be law-abiding.

Lastly, I'd like to pay tribute to my HAZOP mentor, Brian Wilkinson, an old-school chemical engineer - latterly of Britoil (another blast from the past) who also worked way longer than the state-pension age and taught me the "cat-herding" and "crowd-control" skills I use (need) today.

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