Action Figures of Summer

Jim Montague talks about the few process control-related heroes found in the mainstream media and in less-hyped branches of literature and the fine arts.

By Jim Montague

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By Jim Montague, executive editor

Heroes can be hard to find, but it’s easier if you know where to look. This column’s previous author, Rich Merritt, once lamented that the only process control hero in the movies was the Jack Godell character player by actor Jack Lemmon in the China Syndrome (1979). As chief engineer for the fictional Ventana nuclear plant, Godell prevented a meltdown by finding a stuck indicator on a level recorder (“Where Are Our Control Engineer Heroes?,” Oct. ’05, p. 37).

Admittedly, a profession that’s critical, but essentially supportive, may not produce typical action heroes. Still, even though process control occupies a conceptual LaGrange Point between manufacturing, business and now information technology (IT), I thought there had to be more control-related heroes in the mainstream media and in less-hyped branches of literature and the fine arts. Sure, Star Trek’s Scotty is a fine TV-based role model, but he’s pretty much a chewed-over cliché at this point. So, I’ve been collecting some less well-known examples. Most are available for summer viewing at your local library or video store, and more information about each is at www.wikipedia.org or www.YouTube.com.

Perhaps the earliest is theatrical engineer is Prospero, the main character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), who uses his library-derived sorcery to raise a storm that shipwrecks the bad guys. Sure, magic is a far cry from process control, but the play certainly makes it seem like Prospero is following instructions in a control manual. Heck, he even uses the sprite, Ariel, for remote sensing and wireless communications.

If you’re looking for steel and machines, almost all of Jules Verne’s literary and cinematic heroes and anti-heroes use process and discrete control technologies. Capt. Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870), railroad and chemical engineer Cyrus Smith and Nemo in The Myterious Island (1886), and aeronautics genius Robur in The Master of the World (1904) are just a few of Verne’s many innovative engineers.

Even the Tin Woodman in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and its print and celluloid sequels continually is preoccupied with maintaining lubrication, which is a task any control engineer understands all too well.                 
One of the earliest process-control related movies features the engineers and subterranean slaves that run the perfect city in Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis (1927). Not only is this movie loaded with boilers, generators and robots, but it even examines the conflicts between the thinkers and workers in its society, which would no doubt resonate with those involved in today’s plant-floor versus IT arguments.       

In the R&D lab, Sir Alec Guiness portrayed chemical engineer Sidney Stratton in The Man in the White Suit (1951). Stratton invents an invulnerable fabric that threatens to bankrupt the U.K.’s textile industry, until it proves to be unstable. Similarly, in David Mamet’s radio play, The Water Engine (1976), drill-press operator Charles Lang invents an engine that runs on tap water, until powerful interests crush him.

Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy played up and coming wildcatters in Boom Town (1940); James Dean was nascent oilman Jett Rink in Giant (1956); John Wayne was Red Adair look-alike Chance Buckman in Hellfighters (1968); and Bruce Willis was oil-rigger Harry Stamper in Armageddon (1998). Though not overly focused on control, all of these films dealt with oil and gas applications at their most melodramatic.         

On the dystopian side, Terry Gilliam’s fantasy, Brazil (1985), features Robert DeNiro, who plays heating engineer and commando Archibald “Harry” Tuttle. This mysterious savior bedevils his word’s totalitarian bureaucracy, travels in its infrastructure and rescues main character and everyman, Sam Lowry. Likewise, the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix (1999) reveals the modern world to be a computer-generated fantasy that keeps humans’ brains busy, while their bodies float, plugged inside huge clusters of liquid-filled pods from which robotic overlords harvest electricity. Lots of internal plugs and clean in place (CIP) applications in that flick. Ouch!

Most recently and endearingly, the six-armed Boiler Man character, Kamajii, in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated Spirited Away (2001) runs the steam and herbal batch controls for an immense fantasy complex, and helps the movie’s young heroine, Chihiro/Sen, find and rescue her parents.

So, if you think there’s no process control heroes, think again—even if you have broaden your definitions. And check out these movies and books, too. Summer’s fading fast.

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