June 2007 Archives

I'm Moving My Blog

I've moving my blog over to kazabyte.com and  using MOVABLETYPE. I've moved most of my previous posts over. Thank you Jason for helping and hosting.

Silicon Valley Folklore


MerchantCircle is having a party at Nola.  I think this used to be called Pearl's -- the source of this famous Internet story.  I've never met Brian -- but I  have immense respect for him.  I did work one summer with Lucille, his sister...


Date: Mon, 26 Sep 1994 11:31:14 -0400

From: <removed>

Subject: The mother of all grease fires

To: <removed>

Forwarded-by: <removed>

From: Brian Reid <removed>

Date: Fri, 23 Sep 94 17:34:09 PDT

I work in the very center of the city of Palo Alto, in a nice office

building.  We are surrounded on every side by restaurants, hotels, and so

forth. But we are a computer company, and so our building ends up needing

a lot of electricity. We use about a megawatt (1 million watts).

In order to deliver a million watts of electricity to an office building,

you need a very large transformer. These transformers are too big to put

on poles, and besides in quaint downtown areas nobody likes those poles

any more. So the transformers are put underground. The million-watt

transformer that powers our office building is located in an underground

vault in the middle of a walkway that leads to City Hall. The transformer

is about the size of a small car, and the transformer vault is about the

size of a one-car garage, except that the way you get in is to climb down

a ladder from the street level. The top of the transformer vault is well

ventilated, because a million-watt transformer generates a lot of heat.

Several fine restaurants are near this walkway, along with a bank, an art

supply store, and so forth. There's a lot of foot traffic. This being

California, where it never rains, and this being Palo Alto, where it is

always springtime, the restaurants have outdoor seating areas that are

very popular.

Recently the patrons of one restaurant started to complain that there was

an unpleasant odor in their otherwise idyllic outdoor seating area. Soon

the Health Department was called, and they quickly determined that the

odor was caused by rancid oil that had seeped into the sidewalk. Further

investigation showed that the source of the rancid oil was overflow from

a nearby grating.  The grating was marked "City of Palo Alto Utilities",

so the utility department was called.

The utility crew quickly discovered the problem. The oil wasn't really

oil, it was molten deep-frying grease, which was molten because it was

being kept warm by a million-watt transformer. The entire vault was

completely full of used frying grease, about 2000 gallons of it, which

was enough to completely cover the transformer. The heat of the

transformer kept the grease from solidifying.

Police quickly figured out what had happened. Every night for quite a

number of years, one of the nearby restaurants had, at closing time,

emptied its fryer into the transformer vault, thinking that they were

dumping it into the storm sewer. It's quite illegal to dump grease into

a storm sewer, of course, but they probably figured they would never get


Transformers do occasionally overheat; this is why they are kept in

concrete vaults. If this one had overheated, we would have had the mother

of all grease fires.

Last night they shut off all of the electrical power, pumped out the hot

grease, washed out the vault, and replaced the transformer. It's very

fortunate that nobody was killed.

Today's "daily special" menu did not include the usual fried fish.