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Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

Submitted by Spinoza » Wed 02-Jul-2014, 17:33

Subject Area: Systems Engineering

Keywords: Gary Kinder, gold, sonar, complex system

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Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea is a true story about a shipwreck and a treasure hunt, but lying between the lines is the soul and essence of systems engineering. This book, by Gary Kinder, is required reading for anyone with a desire to bring together existing technologies to create a complex machine that does something hither-to thought impossible.

In 1857, The SS Central America, a paddle wheel steamer en-route to New York from Panama, sank in the midst of a hurricane off the North Carolina coast with the loss of 428 lives. It was packed to the gunnels with 35,000 pounds of California gold; at today's prices a street value of at least 800 million dollars.

In 1985 Tommy Thompson, a mechanical engineering graduate from Ohio State University, set out to find the wreck and recover the gold. He was up against it from the start. He had no money, no experience of deep-ocean robotics, no engineering team and the wreck lay at a depth of 8000 feet, somewhere within a search box the size of the state of Rhode Island. The side-scan sonar technologies required for search were in their infancy; the technologies required for underwater recovery at that depth did not exist.

The story time-shifts between the slow death of the steamer in the merciless grip of a hurricane and the conduct of a high risk engineering project. The dramatic tension is maintained with anecdotes of battles with investors, sleazy competitors and the technology itself juxtaposed with unforgettable sub plots: Lines of men bailing for their lives, heroic rescue attempts by passing ships in the belly of a hurricane and men adrift in life boats or just floating in the ocean without food or water.

The recurrent idea and image of the work is the randomness, chance and plain luck that characterizes life in general and the systems engineering project in particular. The incident of the man-of-war hawk is an unforgettable example.

As the SS Central America wallowed helpless and slowly sinking, not far away a Norwegian bark, the Ellen, bound for England with a cargo of mahogany logs rode the Gulf stream under reduced sail. She'd had her foremast ripped from the deck by the storm and was making water but was not in distress. Early in the evening a man-of-war hawk swooped from the sky and attacked the captain, Anders Johnsen, as he stood on deck by the helmsman. It made three passes straight at his face wings flailing seeking out his eyes with a beak eight inches long and lined with teeth like a hacksaw. On the last pass Johnsen grabbed it by the throat while the crew attempted to restrain its legs. It was a profoundly violent bird lunging at all who came near. Ultimately Johnsen ordered its head to be cut off and body thrown overboard. Sea captains were educated but superstitious men. Johnsen regarded the attack as an omen, an indication that he must change course to the east. And so the Ellen turned. Around 1.00 am the following morning with most of the crew asleep below, strange cries emerged from the sea, startling all awake. They were the agonizing shrieks of 100 voices. Johnsen's course change had set the Ellen to sail straight through the site of the sunken steamer and the cries were those of the survivors thrown into the water and floating on the high seas.

Systems engineering textbooks are seldom compelling reads. Management directives to study SE process and follow procedure are often met with yawns and complaints of big M methodology. There is an alternative approach: hook your team on the usefulness of systems engineering process through Tommy Thompson's fantastic treasure hunt - a textbook perfect case study of how to do systems engineering right, using the rich vocabulary of a real life story. Redolent with the aura of "arragh GOLD" they will read every word and find its fundamental principles hard to resist.
Tommy's search and recovery programme neatly marries the idea of entrepreneurship with systems engineering. Kinder's writing illustrates the notion - neatly wrapped around the emotional charge of tragedy at sea followed by discovery and redemption - that inventions are seldom completely new, but an inspired assembly of things that already exist, integrated in a novel way, and that the act of integration under controlled conditions is SE's core mission.
This book changed me. It's a compelling idea that: from a baseline of nothing, through creative divergent thinking, followed by selective convergent thinking, with the right people, technology and systems engineering processes you can achieve great things. If a rookie engineer like Tommy Thompson, armed with a miserable twelve million dollar budget, can find a 130 year old ship wreck, then, bar by bar, pick a billion dollars worth of gold off the seabed from a depth of 8000 feet with the nimble arm of an ROV, then anything is possible.

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RE: Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

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