With the recent passing of Elizabeth Taylor, I ruminated on the effect she has had on our lives and collective consciousness. She was a remarkable actress, and we all probably have some story that involves, even if peripherally, the late star. Here is my Liz Taylor story.
You might think that this would be very short article. However, I have it on good authority that the recently deceased Liz Taylor had a great effect on a generation of Engineers and Computer Scientists.
During my college days in the 80’s, I had occasion to attend a class in Computer Science held by Professor X, a renowned authority on electronics and computer systems. Instead of presenting the material in the dry, pedantic manner used by the other instructors; he would toss in the occasional tale from his work experiences to liven up the lessons. He worked on one of the very first British computers, where his sole job was to scurry around between calculating runs with a shopping cart filled with vacuum tubes, replacing the tubes that blew out every time the beast was used.
As he said, “I thought I had a lifetime job lined up. I was working on the most advanced computer in the world and it looked like it would be many, many years before anyone else would develop something better. Little did I know that in a few short years, everything that our monster computer could do would fit in a shirt pocket sized calculator.” This served as a cautionary tale for those of us who had grown complacent with our mastery of the Basic language. There is always something newer and better coming along.
One of the Professor’s favorite tales involved the indomitable Elizabeth Taylor. He set the scene by describing his job in Britain during the 60’s. He was one of a group of engineers working on advanced telemetry devices. One of their developments was an instantaneous reading electronic thermometer. In those days, mercury thermometers were still in use and today’s wireless thermometers with digital readouts were only a dream.
In the laboratory where he worked, the Professor’s team had a guy, who today would be called the Alpha Geek. You know the type; the guy who knows everything about his specialty, but very little about the real world. He was the butt of myriad practical jokes. Let’s call him “Alf.”
During the filming of Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor contracted a severe case of pneumonia. She was rushed to The London Clinic for treatment. In the days before broad spectrum antibiotics, care was limited to palliative measures. In Elizabeth Taylor’s case, she had what was known as “Spiking Fever.” This condition is characterized by bouts of high fever followed by a drop in temperature. The hospital treated the fever with ice packs and the chills with heating pads. The problem was that the chills and fever were occurring in such rapid succession that the treatment couldn’t be applied rapidly enough to stabilize her. A better way of monitoring her temperature was needed; one that was instantaneous and could also be used to control the heating and cooling devices.
Someone at the hospital had heard about the Professor’s company and their new rapid reading thermometers. This seemed like it could be the perfect solution to the problem. A call from the Director of the hospital to the company resulted in a promise to fabricate and deliver a new thermal probe.
The following conversation ensued between the Professor and Alf;
“Alf, we need you to work on this new project right away. It must be completed by tomorrow morning. Work all night, if necessary.”
“Sure, what do you need me to do?”
“Here are the specs on the device. You need to take one of the new thermocouples, cast it into a probe using the new thermal conductive resin. This project has the highest priority.”
“So,” says Alf as he looks over the specifications, “What are we going to do with the device?”
“We’re going to shove it up Elizabeth Taylor’s butt.”
Before the explanation could continue, Alf had already stormed out of the office. It took three co-workers to convince him that the emergency request was real.
Alf labored throughout the night to build and calibrate the device.
The next day, there was no shortage of volunteer engineers to “oversee” the insertion and testing of the device. The Professor never said exactly how many of the engineers participated in the procedure. His only comment was that Elizabeth Taylor was as beautiful sick as she was when healthy. He also quoted the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay; something about “gazing upon beauty bare.”
As you know, Elizabeth Taylor survived her brush with death; due in no small part to the unsung labors of a team of engineers.
This is where the Butterfly Effect comes into play. Our professor, by recounting his story (and my passing it on to you), helped an unknown (but substantial) number of engineers and computer scientists stick out the rigors of school. We all had the dream of participating in similar events. For the geeks, the hint of the possibility of seeing a beautiful woman is a powerful motivator.