My family went this weekend to Duluth to see the replica sailing ships that came to that fair port for Minnesota's celebration of 150 years of statehood. As the lines to see the sailing ships were four to six hours long, our family took a look at the old ones from a balcony and then proceeded to visit the William A. Irvin, an old ore boat (even if 1000 feet long, it's a "boat" if it stays on fresh water) that has been decommissioned and turned into a museum and ice cream parlor.
While on tour, I saw a couple of things which illustrate brilliantly why U.S. Steel had trouble making profits in the 1980s, specifically a pair of 1938 vintage steam turbines that were used in that ship until 1986, and a control panel that desperately needed some help from the company my dad worked for.
Why so? Well, two main reasons the ship was decommissioned were its slowness (about 25% less speed than modern boats) and number of people needed to run it. For not that much money, this boat could have been retrofitted with modern steam turbines to get a lot more power (hence more speed), and the instrumentation could have been placed on a single panel instead of occupying a whole wall (hence fewer engineers needed).
Now I don't know that this "boat" would still be running today if it had been retrofitted, or even if its hull speed was higher than the 12 mph (not knots, this is the lakes again) it went. However, I do suspect that the same kind of thinking that left 1930s steam turbines in the Irvin was involved in leaving 1930s era Bessemer furnaces in Gary instead of the BOFs that were actually cost-effective.
Penny-wise, pound foolish, and thousands of current and former steelworkers and investors have paid the price.
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