Engineering is branching out21 June 1999
Now that engineering is one of the hottest topics on everybody's lips, romantics like me can be forgiven for a little, well, romancing. The engineering to which I refer is, of course, of the genetic variety, which produces designer-model biological deviants rather than breeders' deliberate varieties or nature's occasional sports.
My romancing genes are making me respond imaginatively to an international newspaper's report. This quotes a certain Andrew Brickell, operations manager at a UK firm called Preserve, as saying that pole preservation 'is now a huge issue for the power companies'. The poles that he has in mind are the wooden ones that carry power lines on many networks. 'As most were erected around the second world war', the quotation proceeds, 'their replacement is becoming a headache'. Fungi, insects and other attackers are the causes of the pain.
Brickell's firm offers a gadget claimed to prolong pole life by at least fifteen years. It is described as a grapefruit-sized injector that is attached to the pole where a small hole has been drilled into its side. The gadget uses a CO2 propellant to squirt wood preservative through the hole into the 'heartwood', throughout whose length the fluid diffuses. A cunning valve regulates the rate to suit the circumstances: if preservative seeps out of cracks in the pole, for instance, the valve adjusts the flow.
This ingenious device is not confined to raising the rot resistance of power poles. It is as potent for telegraph poles. And for joists, fences and submerged piles, says my newspaper. And also, most fascinatingly, for living trees, into which it can inject the kind of agent that is needed to make the different parts grow or shrink as required.
So it cannot be long before we have tree clones to cure all those power companies' headaches. The trees I visualize will be planted at the appropriate intervals along each transmission and distribution route. Remotely controlled grapefruit-sized injectors will adorn their trunks. Doses will be fed to the trees at the commands of computers and the trees will sprout not only complete line supporting structures but also endlessly extending, electrically conductive, tendrils that will intertwine to constitute the lines themselves. All this complex and disciplined growth will occur because the tree genes will have been engineered to bring it about with the help of controlled injections. Thus will 21st century power people make their transmission and distribution networks arise and connect themselves up, with little more effort than is required to plant the seeds and install the bits and pieces.
Unless those spoilsports, the implacable opponents of genetic engineering, nip the whole thing in the bud.
Feminism is no electrotechnicality
Let me acknowledge first my respect for the International Electrotechnical Commission as a custodian of terminological exactitude in our sphere. I acknowledge further that general English-language usage is changing with extraordinary rapidity, and that the International Electrotechnical Commission may be ahead of me in its awareness of all the latest popular (as well as technical) meanings and nuances. I do wonder, however, whether I am truly lagging behind the Commission in the instance that I shall give you.
Time was when, in a male-dominated world, English-language business letters could bear the salutation 'Dear Sir' or 'Gentlemen' without risk of affront to woman recipients. There followed a transition period in which it became necessary to write 'Dear Sir or Madam'. The most punctilious, if linguistically hybrid, usage that I ever saw was 'Gentlemen and/or Mesdames'. Now I find that the International Electrotechnical Commission's central office in Geneva, Switzerland, has been addressing committee members as 'Dear Madams and Sirs'.
The chivalrous primacy thus given to what earlier this century was called the gentle sex may be received with mixed feelings by the kind of feminist who glares at the today-almost-extinct breed of man who holds a door open for her, but there is a risk of more general offence I fear. The word 'Madam' is a polite form of address or reference to an individual. But 'a madam', the singular of 'madams', seems from my sources to be either a British colloquialism for a conceited youngster or a centuries-old expression for a woman brothel keeper.