When I joined Steelmaking Technology at Iscor towards the end of 1984, their prize possession was a HP80 mini-computer with 2 floppy disk drives and a thermal printer, and a dot-matrix printer attached. Although used for fairly mundane task mostly to do with issuing standard reports, this was my first exposure to the use of BASIC, which I used to analyse the cleanliness of continuous cast steel versus that of the resulting tinplate.
I also used it to do a very limited sort of finite element analysis to calculate the amount of hydrogen leaving a slab in a reheating pit. Finite Element Analysis (FEA) was one of the topics that came up in our course on heat transfer at university, and at the time of the exam I clearly showed that I did not understand the first thing about it. Still, it also goes to show that even a germ of knowledge can be nurtured into something useful when the need arises. Although nowhere near the complexity of later application when I had joined Tinplate R&D at British Steel, the simple shape of a slab (basically a simple rectangle in cross section, assuming the slab to be infinitely long) allowed me to perform an approximation to show how time and temperature could be adjusted to maximise the amount of hydrogen diffusing out of it.
My time at Steelmaking Technology was also my first exposure in dealing with a mainframe system. This was mostly used to store standard procedures on how to handle different types of steel grade, or later to set up the quality documents for the different steel types proposed for the Mossref project. So in essence, I was using the mainframe for the rather unusual function of acting as a word processor. I still remember the panic when your line to the mainframe started going slow, and you know that, unless you managed to save your work quickly, you might loose whatever document you were working on.
Towards the end of my time in South Africa some of the people working for me starting experimenting with something called Lotus. In my next job I would learn a lot more about this software package, but that’s for the next blog.