Firefighting Hose Lays and Accidents

A recent article about a Lake County, Florida fire truck accidentally laying 1200 feet of firehose down the middle of the Florida Turnpike and causing damage to a number of cars made me want to post about the old days when I still did that sort of thing.

The hose that runs from the fire hydrant to the fire truck is called supply line. Most supply line is 3 inches or more in diameter, and in Central Florida, it’s usually 5 inches. (Orlando uses 4 inch, but that is because they typically have fire hydrants that are close together).

First, a bit of engineering.

The reason for this is hydrodynamics and friction loss. The average water main pressure is about 65 psi. At 1,000 gallons per minute, a 3 inch hose loses 80 pounds of pressure every 100 feet of hose length due to friction between the moving water and the hose itself, while a 4 inch diameter hose loses 20 pounds of pressure, and a 5 inch hose loses only 8 pounds. That means, if you want longer hose lays with high flow, the larger the diameter of your supply line, the better.

There is a lot of math involved in being the driver of a fire engine. You need to be able to calculate your friction losses in your head, rapidly, and remember that the lives of the guys in the burning building depend on you getting it correct. When you are flowing 2,000 gallons per minute through half a dozen different hose lines a 2 in the morning at a burning strip mall isn’t the time to realize that you are math deficient.

5 inch supply line has what is called a “sexless coupling” meaning that there is no male or female end, the couplings are interchangeable. This allows you to start laying from either the fire to the hydrant, called a reverse lay, or from the hydrant to the fire, called a forward lay. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but we won’t talk about that in this post.

My fire truck carried 1200 feet of 5 inch diameter supply line. That means with standard hydrant pressure, I could get a bit more than 800 gallons per minute into my engine without having to put another fire engine at the hydrant to boost pressure.

The problem with this is twofold:

  • 5 inch hose is heavy. Each 100 foot section weighs a bit more than 100 pounds without water in it. Filled with water, that increases to over 1,000 pounds.
  • 5 inch hose is bulky. The hose itself lays flat, but the couplings are a pain. The hose has to be loaded on the truck in a specific way, or it won’t come out of the truck correctly.

In Practice:

Both of these issues mean that 5 inch is a pain in the ass. It’s worth it, but that is not much consolation when you have to lay and reload 1200 feet of it. Anyhow, if loaded correctly, that hose comes out of the truck like a scalded dog. Like so:

I sympathize with the guys that this happened to. I once laid all 1200 feet of my supply line without meaning to when I was on the way to a large multi alarm fire. We hit a bump, the hose began laying out, and I dumped all 1200 feet in the middle of the road.

There was another time that the water department had removed a hydrant without telling the fire department. I arrived at a fire at 2 o’clock in the morning with the assignment of “secure the water supply.” I decided to do what is called a reverse lay.

So I began laying my supply hose at the fire, and headed to where I thought the closest hydrant was. 1,000 feet later, I arrived at where the hydrant was (or so I thought) and it was no longer there. After the fire was out, the other guys on the engine were not happy with me at all as we loaded all thousand pounds of hose back onto the truck.

The reason for that, is the hose is loaded by the driver backing over the hose as firefighters standing on the back of the truck lift it and load it back on the truck. The driver doesn’t do a thing but drive, the firefighters load the hose. I wasn’t a popular guy that night…

For those who are interested, the amount of hose and other equipment carried on the engine I was assigned to for the last six years of my career as a firefighter was pretty impressive. We had:

  • 1200 feet of 5 inch supply line
  • 300 feet of 3 inch supply line
  • a single 30 foot piece of 5 inch supply line in the side running board
  • a 250 foot length of 2 1/2 inch line preconnected to a smooth bore nozzle (cross lay)
  • a 300 foot piece of 2 1/2 inch line preconnected to a gated wye
  • a pair of 1 3/4 inch line that were 200 feet each, with nozzles connected to them (cross lays)
  • a 100 foot long 1 3/4 inch “trash line” on the front bumper
  • another 200 feet of 2 1/2 inch line, and 300 feet of 1 3/4 inch line in the storage compartments.
  • a “high rise pack” with another 200 feet of 1 3/4 inch hose in it.

That comes to 4,000 feet of hose. Plus all of the connectors, hose tools, breathing apparatus, spare air bottles, medical equipment, thermal cameras, 100 gallons of various types of foam, a set of hydraulic rescue tools, air tools, hand tools, flashlights, a gasoline powered fan, a power saw, extension cords, 2 chain saws, 6 axes, a set of pneumatic lift bags, 2 cases of Gatoraide, 2 boxes of energy bars, and a dozen other tools. The truck itself has a 1500 gallon per minute pump, a 10 kw generator, and 1,000 gallons of firefighting water onboard. In all, there were more than 10,000 pounds of equipment and supplies on that truck.

I loved driving and working off of that engine. I did everything on that truck- I rode as firefighter, paramedic, driver, and even as the officer in charge. There are times that I miss doing it. Life was easier and less complicated then. All I had to do was put the wet stuff on the red stuff.


When the world gets to be a bit overwhelming, I like to sit and think about when things were different. Times weren’t necessarily easier then. This day, I’m thinking about this time of the year, but in 1987. It’s been 36 years and so much has changed since then.

Reagan was still President, I was in the military and also broke. I had an infant son. Still, I was young and the world was filled with the promise of things that could yet still be. Let’s listen to what was on my radio then and remember a time when things were different.


Last night, I was watching some of the streaming offerings on PlutoTV. It got me to thinking about the America that existed when I was a kid. The shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, the Wonderful World of Disney, Six Million Dollar Man, Happy Days, Barney Miller, Mork and Mindy, The Love Boat, Three’s Company, and Laverne and Shirley. During the day, we grew up on old shows like the Dick van Dyke show, Andy Griffith, and The Beverly Hillbillys.

Watching music videos on television.

All of it seems like it was so corny, and so wholesome. I know that life had its difficulties. We had the Carter years, the Cold War, and my young adult years were filled with my time in the military, but being young, the world seemed so much better in those days than it is now. Things made more sense then. Perhaps its due to the state of the world today, or perhaps its due to the youthful optimism that we all have when we are in our teens.

Still, there are times when I live in the nostalgia of the years between 1976 and 1996, and long to return to those days. So I think I will sit here for a couple of hours, watch some nostalgia TV, and remember a time when I was young, and the world seemed to make sense. Then I have to go to work.

Specialization is for Insects

In a recent comment, Big Ruckus D said that I am a Renaissance man type. I recognize that I have a broad knowledge base, but that is largely because of a sense of curiosity at how things work, an inability to sit around and be a couch potato, a sense of adventure, and a lot of luck.

I have had a couple of professions, a lot of jobs, and quite a few hobbies that turned into obsessions. Because I have usually had more than one job, there is a lot of overlap. There were times when I had three jobs and worked more than 90 hours a week. During the fall of 2004, there was a stretch there when I was working 144 hours a week. (Considering that there are only 168 hours in a week, that was a busy time.)

The most interesting people that I have ever met were older people who had a lot of stories to tell. That, combined with a love for the Heinlein quote I read as a child about all of the things that a human ought to be able to do, and I have always aspired to learn lots of things. I have made every attempt to make my story an interesting one, and I have done a shitload of stuff over the years.

In the course of doing these things, I have managed to collect half a dozen college degrees in Art, Medicine, Nursing, Fire Science, as well as administration and management. I’m currently working on my Master’s degree. If I decide to get my doctorate, I will likely finish it just before I begin collecting social security, so I don’t think I will try for that. When I earned my last degree (nursing), I was old enough to be the grandfather of my youngest classmate, and older than all but a handful of the instructors. Some of the nurses at the hospitals where I did my internship told me how inspiring it was to see someone “as old as” I was still going to school.

So here are some of the things that I have done:


  • I was a Navy sailor for 6 years. They taught me to be an electrician and an electric motor rewinder. I also learned to love fighting fires as a part of the ship’s Nucleus Fire Party.
  • After I got out of the Navy, I tried running my own business, a motor repair shop. It turns out that I didn’t know much about running a business at the time (I was only 24 and had never had a real job). I lost my ass and moved back to Florida after only 2 years, where my first job was as a construction electrician. I did that for about 6 months, but moved on. It was too hot, too hard, and too little pay.
  • I was a civilian automation electrician for about 8 years: PLCs, robotics, motor controls, power transmissions, that sort of thing. I learned a lot for this job: I can rebuild gearboxes, do limited welding, repair conveyors, Jetway bridges, cold rolling steel mills, induction annealers, microwave welders, variable frequency drives, vector drives, inverters, and aircraft ground support equipment, etc. I worked at the Orlando Airport, a stainless steel pipe and tube mill, a factory that makes Skylights, an orange juice bottling plant, a paint factory, and for Disney (where I made robots dance while dressed like chickens).
  • Firefighter/medic: When I got out of the Navy, I was a volunteer, then part time, and then full time as a career. I liked it more than being an electrician, so one slowly pushed out the other to become my main job, but I still had a lot of side jobs (see below). In all, I spend over 20 years putting out fires and taking people to the hospital. I did every job in the department except fire chief: Firefighter, paramedic, HAZMAT, technical rescue, DHS certified safety officer, EMS supervisor, truckie, Company Officer, Instructor, Rescue diver, Public safety diver, wildland firefighter, and I even trained as a SWAT medic for a time. Then I retired from that and:
  • I was a high school science teacher for 7 years.
  • Now I am a Registered Nurse

In the middle of all of that, I had a lot of second jobs:

  • Used car salesman (I sucked at it. Only did it for 4 months. Sold three cars, made $900 in commission. Like I said, I sucked. I couldn’t lie to people and get them to buy something I knew was a bad deal.)
  • Automotive chemicals salesman. (After this one, I realized that I can’t sell shit- no more sales for me)
  • Underwater tour guide (Fun, but the pay was low. I only did it because I got to dive for free)
  • SCUBA instructor (Free diving, free classes, discounts on SCUBA gear)
  • One year, I had a job putting Christmas lights on the outside of tall buildings
  • Critical Care Paramedic
  • Paramedic on an interfacility ambulance
  • Janitor
  • I mucked out horse stalls for the Budweiser Clydesdales for a bit
  • Lifeguard
  • I worked at an aluminum injection molding plant, making Bar B Q pits. That work was mind-numbingly stupid, even worse than being a janitor.
  • Instructor at a Vo-Tech school. At various times, I taught motor controls, phlebotomy, paramedic, and EMT.
  • I was a consultant for various companies. I was getting $200 an hour for my time. I couldn’t get steady work, but for about 6 months, I made some serious cash. There is a story there, and I will tell it on this blog some day.
  • I designed, built, and sold rotary phase converters that allowed people to run three phase motors on single phase power. Made a bit of spare money at that one.
  • When I was a kid, my brother and I helped out on my Uncle’s farm. I will never forget watching him castrate a hog when I was only 9 years old.
  • I once helped out in milking rattlesnakes (for venom).
  • I had an FFL and sold guns for awhile. Never made much money, but had fun and bought some guns wholesale. Had a table at some gun shows in Virginia. Sold guns out of my house, back when you could just run a classified ad in the paper. Bought SKS rifles for $79, sold them for $99. I must have sold dozens of those things.


  • HAM radio General ticket
  • SCUBA master diver
  • Home automation
  • this blog
  • robotics
  • IDPA Sharpshooter
  • amateur gunsmith
  • I tried being a stand up comic. I was mildly funny, buy couldn’t come up with new material fast enough to do more than a couple of shows. I did a great bit about farting in the space shuttle, but I wasn’t good enough to do more than that.
  • I was a semi-professional racquetball player. Never was good enough to take the next step, plus you can’t win enough to pay the bills and chicks don’t dig it, even if you tell them you are a professional athlete.

Then there were the interesting events:

  • I was twice homeless for a time. (1994, and 1999)
  • I went bankrupt once, about 15 years ago. I lost everything.
  • Then there was the year that I made so much money that I owed the IRS more than $230,000 at the end of the year.
  • I was arrested twice, once for attempted murder, but no charges were ever filed and they eventually let me go (that is a different story, also interesting). That was a long time ago, when I was young and dumb.
  • I spend three nights in a Federal prison as a prisoner. (That’s another story that you may or may not find interesting, and also a long time ago, when I was dumb.)
  • After all of that, no convictions on my record. (again, it was a good story) Haven’t even had a traffic ticket in more than 2 decades.
  • I once testified against my boss in Federal court. He was a real scumbag. He got away with it, and I hope he burns in hell for what he did to those people. That was also a pretty good story, but I can’t tell that one. Gag order.
  • I’ve been married three times. This is the last one. I have grown as a person, and this one is the one that I want to be with. It’s been a decade now, and we are just a great fit.
  • I have travelled to 48 states (all but Wisconsin and Minnesota) and 35 foreign countries on 5 of the 7 continents.

So I have done a lot of stuff. Some of it interesting, and some of it things that I had to do to pay the bills. Some of it was hard, some paid well, others didn’t. When I write it like this, it seems a lot more eventful that it was when I was actually doing it. I was just trying to get through life and have a bit of fun, but it certainly looks busy. I don’t see how people can get to more than 50 years old without a list of things that looks like this.

If you are still young, don’t sit there and be boring. You only get one shot to experience all that life has to offer. Get out there and don’t waste it.

When I Was Poor

A man was shot on Rivertree Circle in Orlando. This area is one of the “bad neighborhoods” in Orlando. It isn’t Pine Hills or Paramore bad, but that is mainly due to the fact that the “bad” area isn’t that large. Still, this is the Americana area, which is one of the worst areas for crime in the Orlando area:

  1. Pine Hills
  2. Paramore
  3. Washington Shores
  4. Americana Blvd
  5. Semoran Blvd
  6. Kirkman Road
  7. Metro West

Hearing about that neighborhood brings back memories.

Shortly after I was divorced 25 years ago, I was homeless for a time. Friends letting me shower at their place or sleep on the couch occasionally. The amount of child support I was paying, combined with the fact that the court ordered me to pay all of the credit card debt from when we were married meant being without much money. The child support and credit cards were automatically deducted from my pay, which only left me with $300 per month to live on. I walked everywhere and only ate on the days I was at the firehouse for work. I lost 55 pounds that summer. After two months, the small amount of money I could save enabled me to save $500 for a down payment to get a buy here/pay here car and allowed me to get a second job and live in that car.

Once my income was a bit better, I was able to split a two bedroom apartment with a roommate, and the Americana area was the only one we could afford. My half of the rent and utilities was $300 a month. I just checked- the rent in that area is much higher now. A two bedroom in that area costs about $1500 a month nowadays. For a crime ridden ghetto neighborhood.

The neighborhood was so bad that delivery drivers would refuse to deliver pizza or other meals in there, so you had to go get it as take out. Not even a pizza. One of the few places that used to deliver there was a place called “Steak Out.” They have since gone out of business in Florida, but it wasn’t that the food was bad. They delivered a complete steak dinner, the meals were decent, and the prices were reasonable. It’s just that they routinely got robbed at gun point. I was able to order from them once a month or so. It was a special treat.

I once ordered a meal from there, and just as I was biting into the salad, there was a knock at the door. I opened it to discover the delivery driver standing there, disheveled and beaten. He asked to use the phone, because he said he had just been robbed at gunpoint. I immediately drew a handgun, and his eyes grew wide as saucers, and I asked him what the guy looked like. I never found him. The critter was long gone.

In short, I was broke and had to live in a shitty, crime infested neighborhood. It was the kind of place where you didn’t go outdoors at night, unless you had a death wish. I spent a year living there, and then got out.

That was a rough time in my life, but I didn’t sit around and wait for handouts. I worked at the Fire Department, and on my days off I worked a second job as a janitor at Sea World. I went to school during what free time I had and got my paramedic. That got me a $7,000 a year raise. I also quit my janitor job and got a second job working for an ambulance company, which paid much better than janitorial work. I didn’t have to be poor any longer.

Don’t give up. Hard work and a bit of smarts can get you out of whatever situation you are in.

A Love of Reading

When I was a kid, I liked to read. My mother used to get me books, and the first books I remember reading were the Hardy Boys. I got to the point that I could read a Hardy Boys book in about 45 minutes by the time I was in the second grade.

I loved reading so much that the school librarian began paying me with Oreos to place returned library books to the shelf for her. I became a voracious reader, often reading an author’s entire contribution to the library in a few days.

Soon after that, Boys’ Life magazine published the Heinlein story Between Planets. I remember enjoying the story so much that it turned me on to SciFi. Star Wars came out, followed by fan fiction novels like Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which in my mind is a better story than any of the Star Wars sequels by Disney.

I soon had read every Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov book in the library. I moved on to novels like Silent Ship, Silent Sea, the Guadalcanal Diary and more. So many I can’t even remember them all.

The came the Mack Bolan books, the Penetrator, and many other pulp fiction novels of the late 70s and early 80s.

This shaped my childhood, my view of the world, and an intense love of my country. It also made me who I am. By the time I was 12 years old, I was maxing out reading tests. I was reading at the level of a college senior, 300 words per minute with 85% comprehension. Reading fiction became a way to energize the brain and make complex thought not only possible, but enjoyable.

Now contrast that with what kids are being fed today. Pushed away from reading books into reading trash on social media. A constant stream of tranny, communist propaganda.

It’s no wonder that we have lost a nation. Our nation, brain dead and on life support, is soon to see its plug pulled. The artificial life support of endless fiat cash is becoming toxic to the very systems it is supposed to keep running. The land that I grew up in is gone.

Can we change it? Is there enough there that it can be saved? I don’t think that there is. We are entering a dark age where people no longer read, no longer think, and knowledge is of little value. We value the athlete more than the scientist. Most people, including scientists, don’t even know what science or the scientific method is.

It saddens me to see our nation dying, one idiot at a time.

Signal 7

To help in understanding the Disney rules, I want to take a minute to explain how Florida works when it comes to EMS and dead people. Florida’s EMS system requires that all prehospital services (like EMS) have to be supervised by a doctor. That doctor is called a medical director, and that medical director sets the rules under which all of the EMT’s and Paramedics that he supervises must operate. The rules are referred to as protocols.

Some medical directors don’t trust their underlings very much, and keep them on a very short leash by making protocols restrictive. Other medical directors allow their medics latitude to make more clinical decisions than others. There are all kinds of protocols.

My first medical director here in Florida was one of the strict kinds. We were not allowed to declare someone dead. Ever. Every single person got transported, and the doctor in the ED had to make the call. We once transported a person whose head was severed from his body. The ED doctors were pissed.

If you decide that the patient is dead on scene, the radio call used to be “Signal 7.” Then the 911 commission came along, and we were no longer allowed to use codes. From that point on, the radio call became: “No code, no vitals.”

Reedy Creek is, for all practical purposes, a government that is owned by a private company. Their medical director is VERY strict, and the protocols that they operate under are anachronistic. They wrote their protocols IMO with a lawyer and PR department in mind, but not a doctor, and certainly not the patient, in mind. One of the rules that Disney operates under is that all medical patients need to be transported to the hospital, even if they are dead. The majority of them go to Advent Hospital in Celebration, where the doctor then declares them dead. Since Celebration Hospital is not on Disney property, the person didn’t die at Disney. They died in the Hospital.


One question I get all of the time is “What is it like to be a paramedic?” There are a few places that you can work as a paramedic in the peninsula of Florida. I have heard that things are different in other places, but this is how it is here. I described it 9 years ago, if you want to compare.

Most new paramedics want to work flight. The glamour of riding around in a helicopter is pretty alluring, but due to weight restrictions on helicopters, they generally won’t let you be a flight medic if you weigh more than 150 pounds. Flight medics typically have at least 5 years of experience with a 911 service to even be considered for the job.

The next best thing is running with a 911 service. Running with a 911 service is not as boring or routine as other jobs, so that is where nearly all paramedics want to work. The catch is that nearly all 911 EMS on the Florida peninsula is run by fire departments. The pay is pretty good with 911 service, so the competition is fierce. There will be 200 or more applicants for each position, so getting hired for one of these jobs is difficult. Starting pay for a dual (fire, paramedic) certification paramedic is currently about $50,000 per year.

Then there are hospitals and doctors’ offices. They are largely avoided by paramedics because nurses have managed to get employers to prohibit paramedics from giving medications. The reason is that nurses don’t want to be replaced by paramedics making less money. Hospital paramedics are also prohibited from inserting endotracheal tubes, because doctors make several hundred dollars for doing them. They aren’t going to let an hourly employee perform a procedure that a doctor can do for the price of a Lexus payment. So many medics (especially new ones who want the excitement) don’t take these as full time jobs. What winds up happening is the paramedic gets to do all of the things the nurse doesn’t want to do. You start IV lines, draw blood, bathe patients, change adult diapers, collect stool and urine samples, run ECGs, fetch drinks for patients, and other gopher work. A medic in a busy emergency room can expect to walk 20,000 steps (over 8 miles) per day. Starting pay for a hospital medic is around $36,000 a year with no experience.

There are also the theme parks. Most of the work there is simple first aid, with a few emergencies, and a bit of employee health. There are the big ones: Disney, Sea World, Universal, and Busch Gardens. There are smaller ones like Lego Land, Cypress Gardens, and even water parks like the now defunct Water Mania or Wet N’ Wild. Starting pay at these places can be odd, because some require experience, and quite a few only hire part time paramedics who already work elsewhere. Starting pay is between $18 and $23 an hour.

The paramedics who get the least pay and respect in this area are the ones working on non emergency transport ambulances. The pay is low and the working conditions are poor. Shifts are long, normally 12-14 hours each. You do not get a station to sit in on those times where you wait for your next call. You sit in the truck and wait. No reading, eating, sleeping, watching movies on your electronic devices, no texting, no phone use, and no drinking of anything except water. (Not even coffee) These jobs are easy to get, but turnover is high, and most people don’t stay for long, using this place to get experience and move on. These positions are where many medics who can’t get a job elsewhere wind up. Most medics work one of these jobs at some point in their career, but strive to get away from as soon as possible. If you work at one of these for more than 2-3 years or so, most employers will assume that there is a reason why you can’t get a better job and will avoid hiring you out of general principle.

One manager at a private ambulance company told me that his crews were not allowed to eat during shift, because he doesn’t pay them to eat, he pays them to haul patients so he can make money. Expect no meal breaks for the entire 12 hour shift. Another told me that patient care is secondary to keeping the customer (nursing home, hospital, etc) happy, and that the patient was just cargo, and no one cares what cargo thinks. One of my former EMT students was told by an employer when he complained about working conditions, that for every EMT that was working there, there were 7 more looking for a job, and if he didn’t like it, he could be replaced tomorrow. Starting pay for a transport medic averages $32,000 a year. In contrast, a kid right out of high school can get a job at a fast food place for $25,000. Delivery drivers for places like Sysco are making $50,000 a year.

A person aspiring to be a paramedic who isn’t a firefighter is better off going to nursing school. An RN has the same amount of schooling as a paramedic, but makes about double the pay.

That and burnout mean that only half of all paramedics are still working as paramedics five years later. The half of paramedics that leave generally eventually become nurses or respiratory therapists, the rest usually leave for other professions. I know one that became an ice cream man.

Even becoming a firefighter paramedic is a tough road. About half of the people who spend two years becoming paramedics and another six months becoming firefighters never get hired by a fire department. They wind up either moving on to other careers or taking jobs like non emergency ambulance jobs as they wait for the big break that never comes.

I got lucky. I spent two decades running 911 calls with fire departments. I have worked in all of the settings above (except flight- I am too heavy): three hospitals, four different fire departments, two doctor’s offices, three different theme parks, and two different ambulance companies. Each had its plusses and minuses. The biggest minus for most is pay, closely followed by poor working conditions.

In Florida, a nurse can challenge the paramedic exam and become a paramedic, but a paramedic can’t challenge the nursing exam. I can say with all honesty that nursing school doesn’t teach you anything that you didn’t already know as a paramedic. Even so, nurses who began their careers as paramedics make better nurses, especially if you are working in the ED.

Childhood Hijinks

When I was a teen, the cool kids had a phone in their bedroom. The rich kids had their own line with a phone number that was separate from the rest of the house. I didn’t, mostly because my mom didn’t want to “waste money” on that sort of frivolity. For those of you who don’t remember this, ask your parents. It was in the days before the Internet, before cell phones, you know, the ancient days.

So of course, whenever I would be talking to a friend (usually girls), my mother would pick up the phone and say embarrassing things like “Did you take out the trash? Did you do your homework yet?” – you know, the sorts of things that mortify teens by letting other teens know that you have parents.

I had a curfew of midnight on any night when there was no school the next day. The thing is, my parents always went to bed around 10 pm. There were many nights that I would stay out later than curfew, and my parents would frequently catch me staying out until 2 or 3 in the morning, until I hatched my devious plan.

I would call my house from wherever I happened to be at 11:30 or so. The phones would ring throughout the house. My father would pick up the phone at his bedside, and answer it while half asleep. In his groggy, half asleep voice, I would hear: “Hello?”

I would reply, “Dad, I’ve got it.”

He would say: “Tell your friends to stop calling so late.”

Then I would resume whatever I was doing, safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t catch me, as long as I was home before my dad woke up in the morning.

Like the chemistry story, I didn’t tell my mother about this until Dad’s funeral. Mom found it quite funny, and still tells the story to her friends when she talks about all of the funny situations I got myself into as a young lad.

Analog Fire Control

When I was in the Navy, the ship that I was on had a 48 inch diameter carbon arc searchlight on it. The searchlight worked by taking what was essentially two welding rods, pressing them together, and maintaining an electrical arc in order to create a searchlight beam that was bright enough to be seen for miles. In fact, by shining that light at a cloud, it was possible to send Morse code signals to other ships over the horizon.

When my ship was built in the mid 70’s, these lights weren’t made any longer, and the one that was on my ship had been salvaged from a WW2 era destroyer that had been decommissioned. Built in the days before electronics, the system that ran this searchlight was incredibly complicated. It was an analog power supply that ran on a system of motors and gears, with lenses focusing beams of light on various parts of the system that turned motors on and off, pushing the rods closer together, or pulling them apart, as needed to maintain the light beam. A technical manual for a 24 inch example can be found here.

By the time I reported aboard the ship, the light no longer worked and no one knew how to fix it. At one point as a young E-4, I took an interest in this searchlight and decided to get it working. I made a project out of it. I found a manual in the ship’s tech library, brought the control unit down, and spent several weeks rebuilding it. When we finally got the thing lit, it was amazingly bright. The light hadn’t worked in years, and I didn’t get so much as an “attaboy” for getting it working. Nowadays, it seems like you would get a Navy Achievement Medal for fixing that thing.

I tell you this as a setup and explanation of where I got this interest in how early electrical engineers solved problems that seem easy today using electronics. The focus today is on the Ford Mark I fire control system.

The Navy needed a way to calculate the elevation and deflection of Naval guns so as to put shells on target. This was no trivial exercise in math. Both the target and the gun platform were likely moving, the target might even be airborne, the platform might be rocking in heavy seas. Different shells were of different weights and ballistic coefficients. Or you might want to put a starburst shell 50 feet over the target for illumination. Ranges were sometimes 30 or more miles away. All of these factors required math in three axes in order to be overcome: direction, distance, and elevation. Enter the Ford fire control computer.

A frigate might have one. Destroyers had two, allowing multiple batteries to engage different targets. An Iowa class battleship had four of them. They were accurate enough that this computer was still in use until the battleships were retired in the mid 90s. 50 years old is not bad for an analog computer living in the age of transistors.

Check out this video on how the system worked to direct the secondary batteries on the 5 inch guns of the battleship New Jersey.

What can be done today with a laptop computer took an entire room of switches and a 3,000 pound box filled with motors, switches, relays, and gears. It was bulky, heavy, and more complicated than a box full of Swiss watches, but it worked. It worked quite well, in fact.

I consider myself lucky to have worked on that searchlight. It was one of the most interesting projects that I have ever taken on.