Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Quest: Things get easier and more testing

The expedition pulled into Goodland, Indiana about an hour after breaking camp.

The storekeeper was waiting for them, wringing his hands. “I was afraid something had happened to you.”

The storekeeper in Monticello had called by radio and told the storekeeper in Goodland to be on the look-out for the travelers.

Not only was he eager to assist them in gathering data, he had a keen understanding of the difficulties of traveling by horses in the wintertime. He had two bales of second-cutting hay and twenty pounds of grain sitting beside the door.

“Weather this time of year is unpredictable” the storekeep said. “You shouldn’t have any trouble making Watseka by dark but it gives a body comfort to know that he can duck out of the weather if a storm pops up.”

Sally ran through the list of commodities.

“What price do you want?” the storekeep asked. “What I pay or what I generally sell for?”

Steve, thinking quickly said “We want your selling price. That is public knowledge, right?”

“What you pay suppliers for local trade is none of our business. Knowing the selling price we can make some educated guesses about what you are paying your suppliers.” Steve said.

“The thinking is that if somebody between Pennsylvania and Nebraska can produce merchandise for half or a third of what you are selling it for, maybe it makes sense to buy it from them in-bulk and pay the shipping costs rather than buy in dribs-and-drabs and getting a wide variation in quality” Steve said.

The storekeeper nodded. One of the challenges of selling post-Ebola was that not every ham was well cured nor every cord of firewood well seasoned. If he could buy cheaper, even after shipping, and if the quality was more consistent then he could move more volume and make more profit.

The other challenge was that folks wanted to barter and brought in items he had no market for. What was he going to do with a cow hide? If the railroad ran again, maybe somebody along the line would open a tannery and then he could take hides in on trade and make a reasonable profit in both directions.

Yessiree, getting that rail line up and running was a great idea.

“You know” the storekeeper said to Sally “the one thing you aren’t asking about that has me surprised is you aren’t asking me what I have a surplus of.”

Steve leapt to Sally’s rescue. “We were going to get to that.”

“Well, I don’t want to forget to tell you, in case it could help get the locomotives going again” the storekeep said.

“Goodland, Indiana has a small foundry and machine shop that specialized in making cylinder liners” the storekeep said.

“Cylinder liners?” Steve asked. “You will have to excuse me. I don’t know a lot about locomotives.”

“For rebuilding engines” the man said. “You know, jugs. Pull the heads, pull out the worn or cracked sleeve and press in a new one. Makes the engine as good as new.”

“Most of that work went to China but there were enough odd-ball tractor engines to keep Smedley’s in business. He also made replacement parts for old steam engines” the man said. “Not boilers, of course, but nearly everything else. You would be surprised at the number of old steam engines sitting in barns around here. Folks used to take them to shows.”


Samantha Wilder, Ph.D. was getting a little bit desperate. The first four people she interviewed had NO practical knowledge of chemistry in spite of what they claimed.

Wilder decided that the effort to make nitrates had to be a Manhattan Project type effort. She split the task into three major efforts:
  • Synthesizing ammonia
  • Converting the ammonia to nitrates
  • Combining the nitrates with organic compounds like cellulose or hydrocarbons.

Wilder was sure she could juggle all three projects as long as she had strong leaders at the head of each effort.

She needed leaders with a fundamental grasp of chemistry.

She needed leaders who neither oversold, or undersold their efforts.

So far, she had been sorely disappointed.

She had passed word to Chernovsky and the other leaders of Capiche. She had multiple volunteers from the forces defending the buffer region just west of Livingston county. In fact, the four previous candidates CLAIMED to have Master’s in Chemistry from prestigious Universities.

Apparently, they thought hanging out in a warm laboratory was a much better way to spend the winter than camping out and ten mile runs in full gear.

The fifth interviewee was a tall, black man named Ozzie Virgil. He gave Sam a fleeting smile.

“I will be video recording your lab work for the manager to review” Sam said as she fingered her iPhone. “I can’t help you out very much but feel free to ask questions.”

The man nodded. He looked nervous.

“What am I supposed to do?” Ozzie asked.

“Oh, you weren’t told?” Sam said in mock surprise.

“I think you are suppose to do a ‘titration’. The solute is in the green, glass container and the reagent you will titer it with is in the small, clear, glass flask.” Sam said.

There were three containers. A green, glass gallon jug and a tiny, clear, glass flask and a one liter flask labeled "Distilled Water".

Ozzie looked at the bench. He noted the standard assortment of glassware and a titration stand.

“Where is the PPE?” Ozzie asked.

SCORE! Sam thought in her mind. None of the other interviewees had thought to ask.

“I think it is in the drawer next to the sink” Sam said.

“Do you know if either chemical is considered hazardous?” Ozzie asked.

In fact, they were both well-water. But Sam wasn’t going to tell him that.

“I don’t think they are particularly toxic but anything can kill you” Sam admitted. It wasn’t a lie. People had been known to drown in water.

Ozzie found safety glasses with side-shields and a face-mask. Then he tried on a couple of lab coats until he found one that fit. Then he hunted around and figured out how to turn on the hood ventilation. So far, Ozzie was a freaking rocket scientist compared to the first four interviewees.

Ozzie stared at the tiny bottle of “reagent”. “Is that expensive or hard to replace?” Ozzie asked.

“Yes” Sam said. “Both.”

“How precise do you want this titration?” Ozzie asked.

“I dunno. I am just recording your work” Sam answered.

Ozzie hummed as he worked.

He took a pipette and put 49ml of distilled water into a beaker. Then he pulled 0.5ml of “reagent” from the bottle and added it to the beaker. Then he added a bit more distilled water to bring it to exactly 50.0ml. Then he labeled it 1:100

For the benefit of the camera Ozzie said “Add the acid to the water, the way you really oughter.” Adding water to acid can make it pop and splash. Getting acid on your face or in your eyes during a job interview is bad form.

Then he found a second beaker and and repeated the exercise using the diluted “acid” instead of the full strength acid from the stock flask. He labeled that one 1:10e4

“What do I use for an indicator?” Ozzie asked.

“It is already in the solute” Sam answered.

Ozzie very slowly added the fifty milliliters of the 1:10,000 acid to the solute, drop-by-drop. There was no change of color. His big hands moved deftly over the tiny glassware.

“I didn’t think it would trip” Ozzie said. “But if it had, you could have saved the 1:100 for the next guy.”

Then Ozzie repeated the exercise using the 1:100 dilute. If anything, he went even more slowly. Again, no color change.

Before going to the next stage and loading up the titration stand with pure “acid” from the small flask, Ozzie turned to Sam and said “This stuff is expensive. I think we should ask the boss if he wants me to keep going.”

Sam was delighted. She found a leader who knew his way around a lab and knew when to slow down and ask for guidance

"You have done this before, haven't you?" Sam challenged him.

"Yes ma'am. I worked for a company that sold chemicals to companies that plated parts for the automotive industry. When something went wrong, they would send a sample of their tank mix to our lab and we would figure out how to fix it." Ozzie said.

Sam looked Ozzie in the eye and said “I have two questions.”

"Can you recommend any other chemists and when can you start?"



  1. Steam tractors would be a hot item post Ebola. (I'm not going to apologize!)
    They run on anything that burns and water.
    But steam tractors are big, move slowly, and require skilled operators because even a low pressure boiler can kill you pretty quickly. And it will most likely hurt the whole time you are dying.
    I see the tractor as a traveling resource because once fired up, it should be run.
    I can see that the economic models of a cooperative owned steam tractor, and a privately owned steam tractor need some thinking through.

  2. Now we've entered an area I know something about. I run antique steam engines and boilers at the Southeast Old Threshers Reunion in Denton NC. Can't afford one myself, but I get free admission to the show if I work 2 half-day shifts. Much fun, even it it is hot the week of the Fourth of July.

    You don't want to try travelling far with a traction engine. Slow as get out, awkward as hell and not super stable on their feet as far as I'm concerned. However, firewood is easy to get, and they can do a tremendous amount of work. I would say it would be easier to bring things to the engine in most cases, draft animals available.

    Maintenance is a bear. These things wear out every part on them regularly, including the firebox and boiler tubes. But they're still fun.

  3. This brought back a lab experiment from waaaay back when. The nitric acid fumes ate my lab notebook. And my jean jacket sleeve.

    Sleeves are overrated.


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