Cheap Seats 2020
Who Knew? - 02/12
By Rich Trzupek
A million or so years ago, long before anybody had dreamed of anything like the interwebs, a writer named Sydney Harris penned a charming syndicated column entitled “Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things.” It was, if memory serves, a weekly offering carried by a number of newspapers across the country.
It was an eclectic collection of trivia – perhaps a dozen tidbits per column or so – unconnected in any way other than the topics interested Harris’ lively mind and were presumably not known by the majority of his readers. It was always a fun read and I’ve always wanted to pen a tribute of some sort.
Veteran readers know that my day job involves me traveling around the county, and sometimes the globe, working with a wide variety of industries. I very much enjoy meeting people and learning new things, so I feel blessed to work in a field that provides both pleasures. So, with a tip of the hat to Sydney Harris, I present: “Things I Learned In While Learning How Things Are Made.”
Scrap Yards are Disappearing Fast There was a time when the scrap yard (aka: junkyard) was the final resting place for all kinds of products whose useful life had come to an end, like old autos and appliances. If I needed a part for my first car, a 1969 Chevy Nova I dubbed “The Blue Goose”, I’d head over to the scrap yard and mine the expired vehicles for what I needed.
No more. There’s a couple of reasons for the death of the scrap yard. One is the fact that very few people are capable of working on their own motor vehicles anymore. Modern trucks and autos are great, but they are way too complex for non-professionals.
But the biggest reason is the growth of modern, industrial-scale metals recycling plants. Sometimes called “auto-shredders” they are amazing feats of engineering, reducing auto hulks, white goods, scrap metal, etc. into little bits using enormous hammer mills, then using a variety of cutting-edge techniques to separate and recover different metals.
There are over 300 metals recycling plants across the US now and, according to the Department of Commerce, metals recycling is now the 16th largest industry in the nation by revenue.
Steam Punk Lives Ever wonder how they make the lead shot for shotgun shells? They pump molten lead to the top of a seven story tower and then create a “lead rain” inside the tower. As the lead droplets fall they rotate into perfect little spheres that cool solid by the time they reach the base of the tower. Voila! Lead shot!
I was told that the technique was developed in the 19th century and is still practiced today because nobody has come up with a better way to do it.
Speaking of Steam Punk Sadly, they don’t do this any longer, but about 30 years or so ago, here’s how people who made ball bearings made sure they were perfectly round. Each bearing rolled down a specially-designed ramp, bounced off a steel plate and toward a target plate mounted vertically with a hole slightly larger than the bearing at the center. If the bearing was perfectly round and the right size, it would pass through the hole. If not, it would bounce off the target plate. Only bearings that passed through the hole would move on to be sold.
Waste Not, What Not? You know how some online retailors will allow you to order an article of clothing in three sizes and then keep the one that fits? You send the other two back. So, what happens to the rejects? Unless it’s a really expensive item, chances are that the rejects will end up in the trash or recycle bin. Seriously, I am not the first person to report on this. Turns out it’s cheaper to dump the rejects than to restock them. Economics is weird.