Shedloads of data

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2018

Fred Starr recollects.

Have you, too, enjoyed a visit from the North American tree rat, more commonly known as the lovable grey squirrel? When we moved house 30 years ago, I inherited a decent looking garden shed. Of wooden construction, the chipboard roof was starting to collapse, but easy enough to fix. Longitudinal battens were screwed and glued to heavy gauge plywood to give me a pitched roof, protected from the weather with bitumastic felt. I was using a form of Spitfire-like, lightweight, stressed skin construction. Unlike the original, I could stand on it safely.

It worked pretty well, although as wood does, over the years, in its attempts to run away from stress, there was a noticeable bowing of the timbers. It is not only high-temperature alloys that suffer from creep. The real damage came from the grey squirrels, mischievous and intelligent as they are, who ate their way through one corner of the roof. 

I could have done another patch up job, but wanted something more permanent. In came professional help, in the shape of Ron Moss, my local builder. What’s been achieved is simply wonderful and has given a unique insight into how things can now be done. Key features are the use of insulated concrete blocks for the walls. Heavy duty fibreglass sheeting for the roof. An easy clean tiled floor. LED strip lighting. Double gazed windows, as is now mandatory.

Not just a tool shed

Wasn’t this over the top, you might suggest? Not being one for gardening, the shed’s main use is a repository for the books, journals, magazines and papers I’d amassed over the last decade of my working life. Even a new wooden shed wouldn’t be proof against dampness, squirrels, and mice. And something bigger was needed. I had accumulated an amazing amount of material, especially from my British Gas days. 

When I began work, any R&D outfit, worth its name, boasted a really decent, well stocked library, and ensured its research staff were supplied with professional journals and magazines. For me, starting up my own metallurgical section, and too young to have good contacts, I don’t see how I could have survived without the monthly feed of journals and the ability to buy books at the drop of a hat.  

When industry began to downsize, R&D departments and libraries were forced to change too. British Gas had four research stations that amalgamated – but four libraries into one does not go. 

The assessment of what to keep, and what to throw away, was hasty and superficial. Death by landfill or waste incinerator beckoned for a book, unless people like me wanted it. So began the useful use of my shed, despite its shortcomings for storage. 

After I left British Gas, and joined other outfits, I continued to pick up things. For me, priceless works from critical points in the development of science and technology. Professional librarians, standing knee deep in books that were being thrown out, were desperate in the hope that some of their discarded stock would be salvaged.

Sticking to my fingers

There were other, more personal, reprieves from this across the board downsizing, including some of the more interesting in-house reports I’d written, and stuff from long dead research programmes with which I’d been involved. Somehow, these had stuck to my fingers. So saved were my efforts on Alkali Transport in the Slagging Gasifier and the letters and memos associated with corrosion in the reformed gas boilers. The R&D programme associated with the latter was a disaster, costing a couple of million pounds in today’s money. 

What happens when I am gone and my own shed is cleared? There is a solution, I suggest, in the 30 years rule, as adopted by the British Civil Service. Confidential files of this vintage are passed to the Public Record Office in Kew, open to anyone who is interested. In a limited number of cases, where there is a genuine risk to national security, files will continue to be embargoed. We still aren’t told how to make a hydrogen bomb, despite it being a triumph of materials and fabrication technology.

Instead of being lost, why shouldn’t this happen to the masses of data and experimental insights that R&D Departments, churn out, worldwide, every minute? Now that everything is produced in electronic form, there isn’t, as there once was, a physical limit in finding storage room. Furthermore, search engines can mine these intellectual waste dumps of humanity for nuggets of vital info. I used to say, trying to get my colleagues to read the literature, that one sentence can save you a million pounds. Keep that in mind, the next time senior management tries to get you to chuck out a book or wipe the hard drive.