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Searching for the Next Big Thing for a Career in Industrial Automation

My great-grandfather found his way to Western Colorado toward the end of the 19th century because of the discovery of silver in Leadville in 1879. A spectrum of opportunities surrounded silver, stemming from its use in U.S. coinage and its perceived value as a precious commodity. Industrial uses were also increasing.

The region was remote, unexplored, and full of unknowns, making it a great place for a young man to discover an exciting future. In contrast, the northeast part of the country seemed as mature and well-understood as any future one might expect there. Colorado looked like a great journey into new opportunities.

Along came my great-grandfather’s children and their nieces and nephews. My grandfather was one of three brothers who made their early life in Colorado working various jobs in support of the silver mining industrya gigantic business in those days, involving cable trams over canyons into mines that reached deep into the earth. Miners needed support people, food, processing equipment, protection, governance, and all those things that come with emerging industrialization.

By the time my grandfather had to begin to shape his life’s work, he could see the early signs of the end of the “boom” in silver. The mines were only one of many things pulling people West. For example, people made this journey on railroads, which received government support, special treatment, and assistance as they facilitated the expansion of the West and the economic and cultural integration of the country. (Throughout his life, Grandpa would always find a reason to watch a train go by. It was easy, even for me a young boy, to see him get lost in it.)

Railroads, and the things they brought with them, were the next big thing. As a boy, Grandpa wanted a part of it. Trains were reaching maturity when his time came, and he realized that the railroad industry and its people were going to need energy. His life’s work became hydroelectric power.

Grandpa learned about electric generation in Colorado, and moved his young family west from Silverton to Arizona, where his experience led him into a power station foreman position. A second child came along, and one of his brothers moved to the West Coast, causing him to think about how to best use his skills there.

He joined the Great Western Light & Power Company, where he built and operated hydroelectric power plants. GWL&P became the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, and Grandpa completed his work career there, heavily involved in the construction and operation of the Feather River Project plants. It was a grand and satisfying journey for him.

My uncle grew up in the power projects of California, but by the time he was 10 years old, he knew he wanted to fly. The growth of aviation and the changing nature of aviation during WWI was mind-expanding for him. Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic inspired my uncle to pursue a career in aviationthe next big thing, as he saw it.

My uncle began his flying career in the right seat of a B-24 Liberator bomber in Racksheath, England, as he pulled back on the control column, initiating its trip across the English Channel into occupied Europe. His journey involved many standout moments, including a spectacular rescue attempt of a downed crew on a glacier on the Greenland ice sheet in 1948, waiting for the “go” signal during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and pioneering helicopter air rescue in Alaska and Korea. He finished his flying career training new pilots to fly helicopters during the Vietnam War.

Aviation saw its greatest growth, from viable transportation to visiting the moon, during my uncle’s lifetime, and he was always engaged in it. It was an important part of his life and who he was.

When I graduated from college in engineering, I wondered what the next big thing would be. It was easy for me to feel drawn to power generation and distribution because of my grandfather. My uncle’s passion for flying was infectious, but while I could see jobs in it, I couldn’t see the great adventure my uncle had lived. With maturity, I suppose, any adventure becomes mundane. I had capability in mathematics and insights into how things worked, and our economy was looking for ways to improve growth and profitability by doing things better, not just at a larger scale.

My keenest interest was in automation, and the equipment and science that made it all happen. As it turned out, the time was right. It has been a great journeyexactly the right place for me to have spent my work life.

We are at a watershed moment in history, reminding one of the old curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Where are we going? What will be the next big thing? Population growth has expanded faster than resources have kept up. Civilization now includes a huge number of people, all in need of food, water, shelter, and work.

This is an interesting time, and here we are living in it. Five decades ago, I found the beginning of my “yellow brick road” and listened to the munchkins around me suggesting I follow it. As it turned out, it was good advice. Where, in this present world, does the next yellow brick road begin? How do we solve today’s complex problems, and what new technologies will help us get there?

What is the next big thing?


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Ed Farmer
Ed Farmer
Edward J. Farmer, PE, ISA Fellow, is the author of the ISA book "Detecting Leaks in Pipelines." He has more than 40 years of experience in the "high tech" part of the oil industry.

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