Saturday, July 10

More Memoir: Chemistry for Software Engineers

In 1978 I worked in the northwestern corner of the Fairchild Mountain View campus, not far from the Rust Bucket, in Transistor Plant #2. I didn't make transistors; I was a computer programmer. Most Fairchildren knew a lot more about chemistry or physics or even soldering than I did, but very few of them knew anything about programming.

On my first day of work, I show up at Transistor Plant #2 and I'm stopped at the guard shack. They're expecting me. I'm to go the the badging office, then personnel, then to orientation.

Orientation involves going into a little makeshift theatre; 16mm projector and a few chairs, but I'm the only hire today. The first movie is mostly cartoon, something like "The World of Chemicals" or "Our Friends, the Chemicals". Probably made by DuPont or Dow and shown to middle school students. The second movie has lower production values and is much more serious. Guy in white coat with clipboard doing a lot of talking:

At Fairchild, in your job you'll be around chemicals. You should know about them: such-and-such gas is odorless and tasteless and is poisonous to one part in seven zillion. Such-and-such liquid is odorless, no one knows how it tastes, is too corrosive to be contained by any material other than so-and-so. Next gas, another liquid, etc.

OK. We have a bunch of safety equipment around here. Learn how to use them. Here's what an eyewash station looks like; here's a map that shows where they are. Here's what the emergency showers look like; pull on this chain and water dumps on your head. Here's what the oxygen man-packs look like, here's how you put one on. Here's a decontaminating suit, but they're hard to find and you may not have time to put one on. Here's what the gas leak panic button looks like; try not to hit one unless you mean it.

Uh, let's see. If you see a spilled liquid in your area, don't move and use one of the red phones on the wall to call extension 44673428. If you see a leaking pipe call 44764328 unless it's a gas pipe, and then you call 47643843. If the liquid is flowing towards you and your route is blocked you'll need one of these pails of vermiculite...

The room is kind of dark but I try to scribble down the numbers and otherwise make the notes that might save my life when the movie ends. The orientation lady detects my panic and tells me that this safety stuff is just a formality. I should report to work now.

Apparently my office is 17-273; I have to go to the end of this hall, turn right, then left, go through the double doors, end of hallway, left, right, etc. I pass glass walls behind which people in gauze smocks and showercaps are rolling carts which have salami-sized glass tubes or blue plastic lunchboxes on them. Other rooms have fat ladies in the smock+showercap outfit sticking something small into a hole in a box that has one big red and one big green light on it. I get lost, but there is some logic to the numbering. I'm in hallway #12 now, next to office 12-782. Left here, right there, I won't be all that late.

I come upon an enormous puddle of some colorless, odorless but doubtless foul-tasting liquid. Not seeing a red phone anywhere nearby, I turn around and look for another route.

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