The Switchgear Mystery

It seemed normal enough. A blown fuse. Jim had repaired about a billion blown fuses in his life, and this seemed no different. It was only when he saw his friends laughing their heads off that he realised something was wrong.

His hair was standing straight up, literally vertical. Jim didn’t live that down for the rest of the week, until his friend Larry had the same problem working on a simple power point. Electricians may not be superstitious people, but jokes about ghosts in the machine were easy to find that week.

It so happened that Jim and Larry were working together the following week, trying to find out why the backup power system kept turning itself on. This time, it was the hair on their arms that was standing straight up. The team boss, Stan decided to call in the heavy artillery, and got George, the power systems expert, to check out the power source system in detail.

George and two co-workers started with the high voltage systems. Despite quite a few bets on their likely hairstyles when they finished testing the systems, they went to work systematically, literally analysing the power system section by section. Everything was fine until George dropped a spanner.

The result was like putting a piece of tin foil in a microwave. There was blue and white lightning all over the place, like Tesla had come back from the dead to make a point. They got out fast.

After a bit of baffled discussion, the team did what all good electricians do when they don’t have a clue – They went straight to the wiring diagrams. Jim noticed that the area in which the spanner had given its stunning light show just happened to be an area where there were a large number of high voltage cables.

High-voltage electricity is strange stuff. Enough of it in one place can do some very weird things. Uneasily, they decided to check the cables. They didn’t turn off the power for they went in. If the power was turned off, whatever was causing the strange things to happen would simply stop, meaning that they would never find the cause of the problem.

Appropriately, it was Jim who discovered a switch in an obscure corner of the room which seemed to be scorched. Then the lights started flickering like strobes. They came back on, and the PA suddenly burst into life with the song, You Light Up My Life.

Amid many groans about sarcastic fellow workers, they discovered the switch had had been generating electrical fields, which built up over time. These electrical fields reacted to conductive things like metals. They put in new switchgear, big heavy duty circuit breakers, to shut down any encore performances.

A month or so later, Jim came into work with his hair standing up on end. Everybody fell for it until he produced a can of gel mousse. He says his barber never forgave him for not letting him cut his hair while it was standing up like that.

They later found out that nobody had put that song over the PA, it just happened to be part of the public broadcast repertoire. The music had turned itself on.