Pittsburgh Years

Colors

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G

reentree is a close-in, southwestern suburb of Pittsburgh and, indeed, there are many green trees there, where our own, brand-new apartment was located.  The entire apartment complex had just been completed.  Life here seemed to us as unlike life in McKees Rocks as though the sun had broken out after a long week of gray, overcast days.  Fifteen or twenty spanking-new buildings were scattered about, seemingly at random, on the rolling, wooded hills just over­looking the Parkway West, the main road between downtown Pittsburgh and its airport.  This new complex was called Chatham West, I suppose because it was west of downtown and because Pittsburghers seem rather fond of the name Chatham.  William Pitt himself became the first Earl of Chatham and here, the complex itself seemed suffused with the green English elegance of the garden county of his Kent, edged by the Dover cliffs.  The name says freshness and rebirth to those like us, people habituated to its opposite: a place of griminess, exuding the melancholy of its old-country history—though not completely uninteresting for that.

Chatham West: clean and green.  For us it seemed as though a superhero Molly-Maid had just wiped away the decrepitude of centuries and had transformed our lives simply by giving us a completely new stage set, one of crisp hedges, a modest forest of trees, patches of manicured grass; all were fresh colors, even a shimmering blue swimming pool.  Presciently, someone had even thought to sweep up the gray, strange immigrants and repopulate our new milieu with fresh, young people, all of whom seemed quintessentially American.  

We lived in a lower unit on the far west end of one of the new brick buildings.  The brick had been painted in a woodsy brown to complement the surrounding greenery.  Each was three units high.  We were in one of the bottom-most units.  Toward the east, nine or ten more of these triple-units made up the balance of the building.  A small public hallway separated us from our nearest neighbors.  It seemed to us quite private.

The ground floor apartments of our particular building were collectively nicknamed ‘virgin row’, not by us but, jokingly, by the bulk of their inhabitants, predominantly single women.  I’m sure there was not a maiden among them.  Most of the residents were youngish, aspiring, professionals, but there were a few families in some of the units too.  Separately, there was the  swimming pool where, in the summer, everyone could get together, socialize and swim, even picnic if one cared to on the rough-built wooden tables scattered about on the grass near the pool.  Nola was quite relieved to be here; a weight seemed to have been lifted from her.  I enjoyed it too.

Our particular building was on a slope; the units were built like a suburban split-level house: our apartment was entered by going down a half-flight of stairs, as though descending into a shallow basement.  But upon opening the door natural light flooded into the space from a window and a large sliding glass door that opened onto a small patio toward one side.  The large main room into which one entered was a common living-dining area.  When we first looked at it, quite empty, it was a broad field of new-smelling, speckled-brown carpet.  A pendant light fixture near one corner anticipated a dining room table, which we didn’t yet have.  An opening, just there, to a small, functional kitchen displayed brand new, colored appliances and, best of all, on close inspection, there was a garbage disposer in the sink: quintessential modernism.  From the entrance, going in the other direction, were the bathroom and two bedrooms.  One bedroom, the larger, had only small clerestory windows near the ceiling.  The other had a window that looked out on a neatly trimmed lawn just in front of the woods.  Each unit had its own heating and air conditioning system just outside, near the patio.    

We were not thinking much about Naperville anymore.  Our move to this new place was in fact a recognition, unspoken, that we were now Pittsburghers, and would likely remain so.  There was an elementary school for the girls not too far away, and a school bus for transit.  I could walk just a few blocks toward Greentree road and easily get a bus to go to work downtown.

When the Shippingport nuclear project had been completed I reported to a different building at work too.  I had stayed on that project till the very end, almost six months in total, as, gradually, most of the others returned to their families and their normal work life.  The company was busy again now and had outgrown its space at the 300 6th Avenue building.  The Structural Department, and several others, now temporarily occupied a few floors in the nearby Clark Building, just a block or so from the main office.  Messengers ran back and forth on a regular schedule carrying supplies, memos and copies of drawings and other paraphernalia.  A brand-new building, One Oliver Plaza, which was to be about 40 floors tall, was being built about halfway in between the two buildings in which Blaw-Knox now found itself housed.  The entire corporation, not just its Chemical Plants division, would lease a good number of the floors in this new building, but it would be a year or so before it would be completed.  New home; new office; new outlook; and now, even a new project.

 

B

y now I was working as a group leader, which is to say the structural designer in charge of a specific project, another new vista for me and, on top of that, on my return from Shippingport I was handed a novel project, unlike any we had ever done before.  It was a chlorine plant for a paper mill in Georgia.  It was novel for us because it was to be built entirely of concrete.  Structural steel is the natural material of nearly all chemical plants, but this one was to be different.

People prefer white paper.  If paper, a most artificial substance, could at all be said to be natural, it’s natural color would be what my father, in one of his occasional, wry flashes of word-wit, would have termed ‘shit brindle’, a distasteful blend of shades of tan, the color of the inside of a tree that has been severely discombobulated by the heat and strong chemicals used to break down the chunks of its wood into their cellulosic fibers.  In a pulp and paper mill the process of ‘pulping’ starts by someone throwing short, debarked logs, one after another, down a metal chute and into a ‘chipper’.  As these thick, short logs are dropped in the chute an earsplitting noise and a severe vibration occurs.  The opening down which the logs are thrown is just about big enough for a man and I was told to stay back.  My guide told me they had occasionally lost people down that hole, and if one made that particular trip, there would be nothing else to do with you except to make you part of the paper, slight, fleshy blobs—boiled meat.  This story may also have been apocryphal, related for the young boy’s amazement.

Text Box:  
A Digester
From the chipper, the wood chunks are mechanically transported to a very large, heated vessel quite appropriately termed a ‘digester’.  The contents of a digester can usefully be pictured as the contents of your stomach after a very disagreeable restaurant meal when you are searching desperately for that bottle of Tums that you were sure you had left in your car.  After a batch of wood chips has been ‘digested’, all the ‘broth’, the nasty and very smelly chemicals used in the process, is ‘wasted’.  I later saw a humongous flow of this foamy, gunky effluent extending miles out into an otherwise very pretty inland waterway bordering the plant.  The blob was about the size of a football field, perhaps larger, and it was shaped like a very large, malignant-looking, amoeba.  It’s form changed constantly as it made its way leisurely, like an oil slick, to that great solvent, the Atlantic ocean, only a few miles away.  A paper mill, should you have the misfortune to discover one, will be detected by your nose miles before you are able to see it with your eyes.

Structural steel shapes: beams and columns, channels and angles, are to ordinary chemical plants what meat is to potatoes; they just seem to go very well together.  Chemical plants of whatever kind are full of a wide variety of tanks and pressure vessels, heat exchangers, pumps, compressors and blowers, and with all the various appurtenances that connect these elements, one to another, in a productive way: vast networks of piping and wiring and ducting.  This equipment doesn’t exist on a single level as it might in, say, a machine shop.  It is instead scattered around in three dimensions because gravity is often necessary or useful in the process.  The process rules the design.  For these normal sorts of plants, structural steel is strong, very adaptable, well suited to shop fabrication and field installation.  It is relatively inexpensive considering the alternatives.  Structural steel is usually taken for granted by the designers of chemical plants; these shapes will be used to hold all the equipment in place and to support the floors and platforms necessary to permit access to it by plant personnel.

We like white paper because it is nice to write on, and to print newspapers and slick magazines on; we even prefer to blow our noses using white paper, and I could go on.  The people that make the paper whiten it so that it looks more pleasing and sells for more money.  They do this whitening with chlorine, a very effective bleaching agent and they use quite a lot of it.  But chlorine is a lot of trouble: in its production it is nearly impossible, or, rather, uneconomic, to completely confine it to where it belongs, and so the entire environment of the production area is exposed to a very slight, usually benign, concentration of chlorine.  But if you breathe in sufficient chlorine fumes it can damage your lungs and in strong concentration it may even kill you.  Chlorine is a gas heavier than air and it was used as a weapon in World War One.

Another reason chlorine is troubling, and one that is more central here, is that it is also a very effective oxidant, highly corrosive and, almost as easily as destroying your lungs, it will turn even large structural steel members into scrap (rust, FeO3) faster than just about anything else you can name.  This means that a paper mill built out of steel beams and columns requires a lot of expensive maintenance: scraping and painting, scraping and painting, over and over, and even then it’s hard to keep ahead of it since the chlorine is at work 24/7.  So, steel, here, is not a very good material to use.

Concrete, on the other hand, a mixture of small stones and sand bound together in a chemical reaction with cement and water is, like stone, very nearly impervious to chlorine.  But concrete structures have a weakness: concrete is very brittle.  If you push on it, it’s very, very strong but if you pull on it, or bend it, it fractures rather easily, and “kaboom”, you have a mess on your hands.  Most problems have a solution and the remedy here is to add steel reinforcing bars to the concrete.  Strength-wise, this holds the concrete together very well even when it is under tension from bending, the steel reinforcing providing the tensile strength that the concrete lacks.  And, simpatico, the concrete protects the reinforcing steel from its weakness—corrosion.

But it seems that, as in medicine, every remedy has at least one bad side effect.  In this case it is that reinforced concrete beams fracture just the slightest amount as they are stressed.  And that is because the steel reinforcement on the bottom stretches just a little bit under tension.  This stretching causes minute, hairline cracks, though you would probably need a magnifying glass to see them.  For an office building or a school, these little fissures are of no consequence whatsoever.  But in a chlorine plant these cracks can be found and are penetrated by the hard-to-stop chlorine gas.  Chlorine will relentlessly search for and eventually eat away the steel bars that were added to the concrete in order to hold everything together.  So, having cured one problem, another has been created.

Brine, that is to say a solution of salt and water (NaCl + H2O), is used to make chlorine.  It is put into an array of dozens of big concrete pots, called cells, and a powerful electric current is passed through these cells electrolyzing the brine into its constituent chemical parts, of which, chlorine and sodium and hydrogen are the principle ones.  In a production chlor-alkali plant the electrical energy needed for this process is very substantial, enough in fact to supply a medium sized city with all of its power requirements.  In a paper mill the chlorine element (Cl) is used to bleach the paper, while the sodium that comes with it as part of the reaction, in the form of caustic soda, is usually sold to make laundry detergent; and the hydrogen, a flammable gas which bubbles up unbidden as the current is passed through the cells, is usually just collected and vented away into the heavens so that the chlorine plant doesn’t burn like the Hindenburg, which was floated into the air by this lightest of gases and then propelled across the ocean.  

By locating the chlorine plant within the paper mill itself, the paper company in Georgia would not have to buy chlorine from outside and ship it to the mill in railroad tank cars, they could simply pipe it directly to where they needed it in their continuous paper plant; very efficient.  The chlorine cells, reinforced concrete themselves, and all the paraphernalia they require were to be located on the second floor of the new Chlorine Building for reasons that I don’t recall.  In the design of chemical plants, structural designers are not often consulted on the location of things.  In this case, had we been, the concrete cells certainly would have been located on the ground floor, since they were very heavy.  But, heavy or not, we had to hold them up just where we were told to by the process engineers.

Concrete structures have traditionally been constructed of what is called in the trade: cast-in-place concrete.  This term refers to a method of constructing a building that goes like this:  First, a small army of carpenters fashions a temporary yet very precisely configured wooden formwork into which the concrete slurry will eventually be placed.  Then, when the carpenters are finished, another small army, this time of steelworkers (unions, you see, like oil and water, don’t mix), is brought in to set and properly secure the forest of reinforcing bars that will strengthen the concrete after it has been ‘cast’.  When the concrete dries and becomes strong enough, this whole temporary wooden structure is ripped down and discarded; all in all an expensive and time consuming process, much more costly than building a house for example.

Prestressed concrete beams are different. 

Prestressed concrete is fabricated in a large, outdoor production plant by stretching very strong steel wires with powerful hydraulic cylinders until the wires almost yield, but don’t, quite.  Now, stretched much tighter than any violin strings could be, they are held in place like that and the concrete is placed around them in forms which are in the shape of rectangular beams.  After the concrete hardens enough the wires are released.  Essentially lazy, not liking the pressure, they now want to contract back to their restful length, but the concrete to which they are now bonded has now become hard and feisty, and it won’t let the wires relax, so they duke it out with each other and the fight ends up a draw: the stretched wires shorten some in their attempt to go back to rest and, crucially, the concrete itself get squashed some by the wires, which is a layman’s way of expressing that the concrete becomes stressed, in this case, compressed.

After fabrication in this manner the beams are hauled to the jobsite on large trucks and lifted into place with a crane, handled very much the way that structural steel is, except that these beams are larger and heavier than steel beams would be.  The benefit of all this effort for a chlorine plant is that when these prestressed concrete beams are set in place and, after they are stressed by the gravity loads that they were designed for, they still won’t crack, not even a hairline crack; in the bending imposed on them they just lose some of the pre-compression that the embedded wires gave them way-back-when at the prestressing plant.  And because of this compression the chlorine can’t get into the concrete at all to corrode the steel wires.  

At the time of this project prestressed concrete was rather new in the industry.  It had become popular for supporting the overpasses of major highway bridges.  These bridges have nearly the same problem that chlorine plants do, though it is less severe:  Corrosion is the main determiner of the lifespan of a bridge and, in the north, salt is used on roads to melt the snow and ice; the salt, in reaction with the melting ice (NaCl + H2O, again) is nearly as corrosive as chlorine, since it too is an oxidant.  So prestressing is a good solution for bridges.  Prestressed concrete members had occasionally been employed for structures other than bridges but, at that time, very rarely; it remains expensive in this country, in comparison to structural steel.  

Because prestressed concrete was then new, I had earlier studied-up a little on how it is designed.  It seemed somehow more interesting than the design of structural steel which, by that time, for me, had become sort of like eating cornflakes for breakfast every morning.  At any rate I understood the basic theory behind prestressed concrete, if not much more.  This structural material had never been used before at Blaw-Knox so, on my part, studying it was just a curiosity.

Though I was the structural group-leader for the project, my role in this paper mill project was relatively minor.  As I wrote earlier, the process rules; the structure is secondary.  Yet neither was it unimportant.  It involved making sure that things stayed where they were put, a deceptively pleasant way of saying that things should not crash down, make a big mess, killing and injuring people—and provoking a flock of lawsuits.  It should be remembered that this project is in United States, the southern United States at that, where personal injury lawsuits are considered by their practitioners as an entertainment similar to quail hunting: the target has a sporting chance, but perhaps not very much of one.

Physics and, secondarily, engineering, can be neatly separated into dynamics: things that want to move around like planets, moons, tornadoes and airplanes; and statics, which concerns things that ought to be still, like the floor you stand on, the building where you work, and your dinner table.  There are different sets of rules that govern the two regimes of statics and dynamics.  Structural designers vastly prefer statics; they quite understandably like things not to move around; in fact ordinarily that is precisely the aim.

Chief engineers, the men (and they were men then) who manage the many engineers and draftsmen involved in the design of a structure, ordinarily shun new ideas.  This is their nature.  Since this class of people has occasionally been burned by novel ideas, avoidance of risk is practically written into their job description.  Now, the novel idea of using precast, prestressed concrete for a chemical plant should have given my Chief Engineer the shivers, particularly since an endeavor like this had never before been done in our shop.  And, to put the icing on the cake, the head designer, me, had not a credential to his name.  Yet when I proposed this innovation to Forest Williams he reflected upon it only a short while before deciding to go ahead with it.  The benefit of prestressed concrete for a chlorine plant was simply too compelling, and perhaps he was as intrigued with the idea as I was.

In an uncharacteristic burst of exuberance he assigned two Turkish engineers to me.  I think the rationale was that, not being American, they would be more familiar with the design of concrete for buildings.  This is not an entirely fanciful notion because in most of the world concrete is used much more for the construction of superstructures than it is in the United States; again, economics: for the developing world the importation of structural steel is expensive.  Unfort­unately, the Turks knew less about it than I did, which wasn’t then very much.

We had a lot of fun with this project over the next several months and we learned a great deal.  During construction of the plant I once flew to Jacksonville, Florida, to the concrete plant, ostensibly to ‘inspect’ the process of fabricating the prestressed concrete.  But in reality this jaunt was just an excuse to let me see the fruits of all our labors and to deepen my education.  Still later, I went to the job site in Georgia to watch them erect the concrete members we had designed.  I learned a number of things there, the most important of which was that the unusual connections we had fashioned in order to connect beams to girders and girders to columns, in such a way as to hide their steel from the chlorine, actually worked as planned.  This knowledge was very comforting; I had been nervous about these novel connections: Could they be easily erected?  Would they carry their loads?

Another bit of knowledge that has stuck with me over these many years is that the workers in a Georgia paper mill are perhaps the best fed workers on our planet; they, understandably bulky men, took meals every day in the plant’s cafeteria where the food: fried chicken, pork chops, eggs and grits, baked beans, greens with fatback and green beans with bacon, sweet corn, pies, cakes and other scrumptious southern cooking was all prepared for them by stout, black ladies.  They clearly enjoyed the fruits of their labors as well as the plant workers.

But best of all, everything stayed static, exactly where was put and, as far as I know, it is still there.

 

T

he business that my father inherited, F. S. Goetsch & Son, began blacksmithing in Naperville, Illinois in about the 1880s.  It was still doing a small amount of walk-in, retail business when I was a child hanging around there after school: a little welding done, a few bars of iron sold, a plow sharpened, a snowplow repaired, that sort of thing.  A company called the Tabulating Machine Company began doing business about then too, and in a remarkably similar building, out east, in the state of New York.  But that is where their similarities end.

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Home office: FS Goetsch & Son

Home office: The Tabulating Machine Company

TMC was eventually bought out, becoming the International Business Machines Corporation.  Later, it became so familiar to all that it was renamed IBM and nicknamed Big Blue because all their computers were painted in a spackled, blue paint.  F. S. Goetsch & Son, never taken over by outsiders, was nicknamed simply The Shop.

Yet, curiously, these two companies’ business interests intersected at some point in the 1940s when IBM sold, and my father bought, an invoice-machine from them.  It was a metal box that sat on a desk.  This device, which carried the then-nothing-special nameplate of the International Business Machines Corporation, enabled one to write out a pre-numbered invoice for, say, sharpening a plow.  It was written out firmly in pencil, and then one turned a crank on the side of the box to immediately spit out a copy for the customer.  A carbon copy of the invoice automatically folded up inside the machine for the bookkeeper to record later.  One purchased the duplicative, multi copy invoices from IBM too; they were always good business people—selling not only razors but the razor blades too, so to speak.  But the box’s surface was painted a spackled black, like an old-time napkin holder in a diner.  It was not blue.