Unnoticed Infrastructure 2

Yesterday, I posted an article about unnoticed bits of old infrastructure.

Today, one of my co-workers removed what appeared to be a non-fuctional old thermostat from the wall of our office while we were cleaning up.  He was rewarded with a neverending blast of (very musty) compressed air, shrieking through the small hole in the wall that the “thermostat” previously covered.  Fortunately, the device could be replaced with little trouble, and resealed the hole.  I have little idea what the device did.  It looked like a metal strip thermostat, but I’ve never heard of a pneumatic circuit arrangement like this.

I was reminded of how this sort of thing can be important.  If people have to deal with an unfamiliar device in a hurry, bad results can, well, result.  The worst building fire in the U.S. was the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago.  A combination of factors combined to cause the loss of over 600 lives, but one was the use of “bascule” locks on some theater exit doors.  These locks were a European type that were used very little in the U.S., and so few people knew how to open them.  The results of a crowd trying to get through a nearly unopenable door were unfortunate, to say the least.  As it happened, a man named Frank Houseman had a bascule lock on his icebox at home, and so managed to open one of the exit doors, allowing numerous people to escape.  The installation of “panic bars” on doors in U.S. public buildings is partially a result of this disaster.

(It is also worth noting that a passerby named Peter Quinn opened another door from the outside with tools he had in his pockets, probably primarily a screwdriver, allowing another 100 people to get out.  Always carry a pocket knife if you can.)

I’m also told that knowing where door wedges are is useful in case of a “rogue shooter” scenario.

Apologies for the grim post.  The shadow of the book The Pessimist’s Guide to History stretches long.  To this day I am uncomfortable above the 3rd floor in wooden buildings.  I’ll try for something lighter next post.

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