Working electric outlet, redefined

Flashback to the 1980s, when this pilot fish's company has written and successfully implemented new parts inventory software for a food canning company's new plant.

"With everything working, they wanted to install this system in all their plants," says fish. "A programmer and I drove 16 hours to install a new computerized parts inventory system in their original canning plant that was using index cards for parts -- a whole roomful."

After setting up the server and terminals in the index card room, fish also needs to put in a terminal at the parts window. He runs a serial cable from the server without difficulty, but then he looks for a power outlet to plug in the terminal.

The workers point him to a set of outlets near the window that has a wall clock plugged into it. OK, that should do, fish thinks. He solders a connector onto the cable, plugs everything in and calls to the programmer to plug the cable into the server.

That's when the yelling starts: FIRE!

Fish sprints to the index card room and there's smoke coming out of the server.

"I removed the case to see slave boards with the tops of chips blown off," fish says. "I plugged a new slave board in and plugged everything in.

"Poof -- smoke everywhere."

An electrician is called in to check the wiring. The outlets in the index room -- the ones the server is plugged into -- are fine. Then the electrician tests the outlets at the parts window.

And in a calm voice, he tells fish, "I've heard of these, but I've never seen one before." The outlets are apparently left over from when the plant first installed fluorescent lights. Instead of the grounded 110-volt outlets fish expected, they're 220 volts -- and not grounded.

Fish calls to have a new circuit board flown in overnight, and during third shift the electrician runs a new wire and outlet for the terminal, so the job gets done.

But that's not a lot of consolation for what might have been. "If I had plugged the cable into the server first," says fish, "I would have had a welder instead of a soldering iron."

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