A friend wanted to work on a “great” project

A fellow engineer once commented that our work seemed mundane. He wanted to do something big or spectacular or “great”, like the moon landings or Hoover Dam. And it wasn’t just that he wanted it to be great, he wanted to work on something that was of historical importance. “What’s our generation’s big project?” he asked.

That’s all well and good, and our work wasn’t the kind that got written up even in popular technical magazines, but I think that maybe our work was great. We are living through one of the most transformative technology revolutions in history. The computing industry had been around for a while before I started but things have really hit critical mass since then. The growing power of computing and communications technology has improved things and made possible things that simply could not have been done before.

Building the hardware and software for full-scope nuclear power plant simulators was a complicated undertaking that required lot of expensive equipment and a large team of people. Computers of that time were only just becoming able handle the I/O needed to run the forest of control panels, calculate the status of the valves and switches and pumps, and simulate the electrical and fluid systems in a plant smoothly.

Flow vs. pressure calculations are a square root function and the generation of simulators we worked on were powerful enough to compute those in quantity, where earlier computers had to approximate by using two linear functions. That limited the accuracy that could be achieved but was sufficient for studying normal operations. Operations involving major transients had discontinuities in detail but were at least reasonable in character.

Simulations from still farther back were built on analog computers. They were composed of physical circuit links whose resistors, capacitors, and other items which made each link behave like its analogous fluid or mechanical connection. One of the older engineers I worked with described zero-slice and one-slice functions but I could not find references to those. My understanding is that they were low-pass and high-pass filters that had the effect of performing logical truncation.

Full-scope simulators of the time took several years to build. Technology was changing so quickly that PCs were capable of duplicating many of their functions by the time the simulators got delivered. I was surprised that the PCs I owned were good enough to develop and test complicated models in real-time while also generating pretty graphics. In subsequent years the big Gould/Encore SEL 32/8000-9000 series minicomputers and Sun workstations were replaced by PCs entirely.

I always thought that working on those systems was one of the most fun things I ever did, but others were not as impressed. Indeed, I’ve been able to ride that ever-increasing computing power to do all kinds of newer and better and faster and cheaper things. My engineer friend stayed in the nuclear industry, during which time its safety, reliability, and productivity have improved markedly.

That said, an engineer who actually worked on the Apollo program found his way to Westinghouse when I was there, and he proved to be very talented. (I always found it interesting that so many of those engineers were so young.) I remember that he ran afoul of a consultant who had a habit of gumming things up on one of the projects, and the last time I saw him he was sitting with a different co-worker, describing his disagreements with the consultant while slamming out differential equations in anger. I don’t know whether I thought highly of him because he had worked on Apollo or just because we was a good engineer.

It may also be that fighter aircraft or iPhones or other very specific, highly visible projects will always seem sexier than grinding out analyses and training and work-a-day products. I guess it’s all in how you look at it. Maybe I’ll ask my friend if he feels differently now.

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