Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Learning clear communication from a storeroom clerk

Specific language is important in speechwriting and elsewhere in life. If you don’t tell people exactly what you want, then you are unlikely to get it.  At the beginning of the fall university term at Carnegie Mellon almost four decades ago, I got to watch a rite of passage for new graduate students. One of them walked up to the counter of the Metallurgy Department storeroom and innocently told the clerk:

“Bob, I need some copper wire.”

Mr. Miller then put two items down on the counter and replied:

“We’ve got #36 magnet wire (0.005-inch diameter, like coarse human hair) and we’ve also got #0 welding lead wire (0.325-inch diameter, like your ballpoint pen). There are many more sizes between those two. Which do you really want? Solid or stranded? Insulated or bare? Wire or cable?”

At that point the newcomer went away empty-handed to regroup, and looked in a handbook or two. He got an education on the American Wire Gauge (AWG) system, and how to choose a reasonable size based on allowable current. As shown above, #8 stranded (0.129-inch diameter) wire might be used in cables for jump starting a car, while #18 solid (0.040-inch diameter) is typical for hook-up wire. Often one or both ends of a wire are attached to connectors like alligator clips, banana plugs, phone plugs, and various NEMA plugs.
Lots of practical information including terminology and standards gets learned at a university but outside of a classroom. Students learn from other students, and from all the support staff - technicians, machinists, electricians, plumbers, and clerks.

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