Swiss Professor Robinson, II

The continuing story of the accidentally exiled professor:

I knew they were working. I knew what they were working at. They thought they knew what they were working at.

While I was in my office, upstairs in the so-called mechanical pent house, the doughty maintenance crew was at work on the building steam lines. Summer vacation is of course when all the major but postponable work on a college gets done by the physical plant. We – meaning humans – could swelter more safely than we could freeze. Even in the heat of the summer, the buildings wouldn’t get as dangerous as they would in the depths of winter.

The steam worked last winter, but I knew the distribution looked like spaghetti upstairs. You know how cables and cords get scrambled in a networking closet, or even behind a PC on a desk? Their hoses did the same thing over time, somehow, and now the physical plant decided to fix them for good. I had seen the planned new manifold of pipes and valves on paper and agreed that it would be much safer.

Many people don’t know that high pressure steam is one of the best ways of moving energy around. In some places, like factory complexes or prisons, the buildings would have no heaters themselves, but used steam from a centralized source. The country called Iceland is notoriously heated that way, almost completely, from their volcanical steam. Our campus buildings and sidewalks were all heated via steam in pipes. The steam would be split into smaller lines, and smaller ones, and these would heat fins that had air blown over them. In the summer, chilled brine or glycol would be used to cool the air.

At least, most places would do that. We didn’t have a central chiller, the engineering building had an underground storage tank called the Anbar that water was allowed to settle in and cool off in before being pumped up. Nice bit of engineering. The hole in the ground was an old storage room that we then flooded. That was decades ago, when I first was on the staff.

Since my office was on the third floor, underneath the “pent house”, I could hear some sounds. The heavy or the loud filtered through the floor and ceiling.



And then, a scramble. I don’t know how I could tell through the sound-deadening layers of concrete and steel, but something had happened upstairs.


The atmospheric pressure dropped suddenly. They – I’m guessing now – had accidentally let off a live steam line that somehow aspirated air out of the building. That is my only explanation for the sound and the pressure change. Someone probably got fired because of that. Somehow the steam into the building wasn’t turned off and locked out, which is a complete contravention of every safety rule.

My door slowly swung shut and latched quietly, like a student had just left my office. Click-chunk I could hear the shouting upstairs much more clearly now.

“It’s stuck! I can’t move it!”

“Then vent it! Open all the other lines!”


Then came a series of hissing sounds from different parts of the building. Evidently they were trying to take as much pressure out of the line as possible by feeding steam to everything that was hooked up to take it. You and I are probably wondering why they didn’t have the central plant cut the steam line off now, or for that matter, before they started working on this. I don’t know. I’m not in a place where I can ask them.


Out in the hall, one of the radiant heaters overhead failed and a huge blast of steam started shooting down at the floor. Instantly student posters on the walls started soaking up the moisture. The ink ran so fast I watched in fascination. I should have been calling Security over this, but really, I was too caught up in it. I suppose I can’t blame the maintenance crew for letting their excitement take over their minds.

What I can, and do, blame them for is getting the compressed air and steam lines mixed up earlier on. The building has compressed air service for experiments and laboratories, and also to operate the modular offices. Each office is a little self contained module that is inserted into the building frame. Power and air connectors mate and the office is then ready for use. If an office needs to be moved or replaced, it can be pushed out by the compressed air system. The top contains rails that a special crane hooks into and then moves the office to its new location, or, if it is completely trash, sets it down on the ground for later removal.

After the heater pipe had burst and the steam jet had started to melt the linoleum I heard more scrambling upstairs.

“Here, try this one!”

“Give me a hand…”

“Lift the catch first!”

Then, three voices at once: “There!”

In about 3 seconds a fan of steam shot up from the floor right outside my office. A huge roaring made me temporarily deaf. The hall windows in my office fogged up at once so I couldn’t see a thing. Instead I felt a strange linear motion. I was moving…? But everything in sight was still!

I felt, in my stomach, a fear. I think, for the second time in my life, I thought I was going to die within seconds.

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A hopefully entertaining blogger, frequently of technical things, but some artistic commentary too.

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