March 9, 2009

Concrete Evidence

They paid CTA for the list of chemical ingredients, the precise solvent information, and the data specifying reaction temperatures. Cassell received a list of relatively simple instructions: put a condenser on the reactor; don’t get the reaction too hot. CTA also proposed to design a scaled up reactor and do the testing for additional funding.
Then the troubles started. She remembered when Blain had insisted on hiring a certain Dr. Fuchs, a German manufacturing consultant who, or so it seemed to Nancy, came so highly recommended but with suspiciously faint praise. Nancy flushed with anger at the memory of the way she and her husband had been manipulated by the smooth talking consultant. She had been amazed when Blain was taken in by the thick spread of flattery concerning the genius of American entrepreneurs such as Cassell that Fuchs delivered in a heavy accent during drinks after an expensive dinner—the astronomical charges for which the consultant paid and later added to his billing. Nancy Cassell was also skeptical of the way the man retreated into heavily accented German when she tried to pin him down on the finer points of the design.
Fuchs, whose name translated as Fox, was to design the reaction vessel for large production batches. Nancy had felt a strong sense of unease when Cassell decided not to inform CTA that he was building the reaction vessel with Fuch’s help, citing delays on the project when CTA made friendly inquiries. Hadn’t the CTA people always been helpful and honest with them?
Nancy gritted her teeth when Blain Cassell hired an expensive patent lawyer to work with Dr. Fuchs. Without telling Fuchs or her husband, she had sent the patent draft to CTA for review. CTA replied, commenting that the claims were too broad—something she had thought all along. They were particularly critical of Dr. Fuchs for adding language to cover a large number of metals and other organometalic compounds. CTA felt that a more specific patent would be acceptable. In time, CTA as well as Nancy were proven right when Blain, who by that time had spent more money than their business cold afford on patent lawyers and consultants, had the patent thrown out.
Acting on an angry impulse, she turned left and walked down the overgrown path. She paused to study a horned toad blinking sleepily atop a mound of sun bleached shells—the fascinating little creatures would soon disappear as fire ants from Mexico moved into the area. She remembered the skeletons of dead beetles and insects that used to litter the path. At least the evidence of their folly had now returned to Mother Earth. How could Blain not have known that Fuch’s design of the reactor was terribly wrong?
The rusted remains of Blain’s Folly squatted on ugly steel supports on a cracked concrete pad in front of her. The steel ramp that led to the control panel had fallen away on one side leaving scars across the side of the main tank. Old gauges were half filled with water, missing switches and valve controls were open holes gaping in panels, and once-shiny stainless piping was now covered in the white veneer of corrosion. How stupid the whole thing seemed, now.
As she recalled, the Cassell lab crew just couldn’t seem to get the temperature up to the right range in the reaction vessel. The exterior oil bath that heated the tank would get so hot that the whole reactor was in danger of burning up. No matter what the heater temperature, the interior mix never seemed to reach the temperature that CTA had specified. Nancy wanted to get CTA over to look at the large scale reactor, but every time she mentioned the possibility to her husband he would send in Fuchs who would explain to her how near they were to a solution. Finally, with the rejection of the patent, the company abandoned the project.
Bitterly, Nancy remembered CTA’s recent site visit to discuss procedural improvements necessary for Cassell’s entry into the nuclear coating business. CTA saw the old reactor, wondered aloud why they weren’t told of it, and with Nancy’s permission, looked over the installation. Within five minutes they had the solution. It seemed that the thermometer probe was near the top of the vessel in the vapor, not down at the liquid level. Blain couldn’t make it work because he was measuring the temperature of a cooler condensate, not the liquid product. Consequently, the whole thing was overheated and the reaction spoiled. Also, because of the severe overheating and the vapor leaks, the toxic materials from the overheated reactor had contaminated the surrounding area and caused some of the plants and most of the insects to die off.
Nancy couldn’t help remembering that another paint company that was much larger that Cassell filed for a similar patent about two years later. The patent claims didn’t have the excess baggage of broad claims, and the patent was granted. CTA had warned her that when Cassell abandoned the patent someone else would be right on the spot to follow up.
So now, even if Cassell Coatings wanted to make the material, they would have either an expensive “prior art” case to fight or they would have to pay royalties for a material process that they invented. The irony was that CTA had a trial formula applied to the hull of a sailboat in the New Orleans yacht harbor. Sam Friendly—the Friendly Lady–had made many voyages along the Gulf coast. After five years, Nancy understood the coating was performing perfectly.

As she stood there in the heat, tears mingled with sweat on her face, a fierce deterimination to survive gripped her. How could Cassell get so close to a new product and not get it produced, accepted, and on the market? These were questions she would not let slip, this time. They could have sold the material or the process to all of the major marine coatings manufacturers and made millions. Nancy was more than a little frustrated with her son and her husband. Because of Blain Jr. and his meddling, she was behind on the payments to Nightwing Labs. The investment in a new product line only to abandon it wasn’t going to happen with the nuclear coatings. They would survive or fail as a company on the success this venture.
Even Blain realized that Nightwing labs and their Design Basis Accident tests were crucial to the success of their coatings. The anger inside of her overwhelmed her; she ran back along the path, feeling faint and nauseated.
She didn’t remember quite how she got to the laboratory building behind the old house. The cold air startled her as she gasped and staggered back against the wall inside the door. Except for the offices in the house up front, the lab building was the only place air conditioned at the plant. No one was at the front desk—probably back in the quality control lab where things like viscosity and color for each batch of paint was measured against the standard for that particular product. She walked in to Blain Jr.’s office where she overheard him talking on the phone.
“I’d like to speak with Mary Mouton,” he was saying. “No, it’s not personal, it’s about the coatings tests you’re doing for us. I’d like to know if I can substitute a new batch of samples for the ones we submitted. We’ve got a new formulation that I think will pass the tests.”
Her son saw her.” Look, just have her call me later if you can do the substitution,” he placed the receiver back on its cradle. “What can I do for you, Mom?” he asked.
Nancy took time to look over her son’s face. He was his father in almost every way. His was the same squared face and jaw line that she’d liked when she’d met his father. There was that air of vision and toughness that dissolved into such a charming and compassionate smile that had captured her heart. After the terrible accident that scarred one side of her husbands face, it was a blessing to be able to see the younger, untouched version, again.

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About charles frenzel

I've been writing all my life. I've also painted, composed, sculpted, contributed to molecular research, advanced some mathematical concepts, lived on a sailboat, and worked for a Nobel Prize winner. Nothing in my life has pleased me more than to share my life with my wife and friend of over forty years.

View all posts by charles frenzel

3 Responses to “Failure”

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  2. Tony Adamson Says:

    Superb. It’s the same here in Phoenix. Can be remarkably amusing, but that’s life in this day and age.

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