Back to basics, the Navy way

Flashback to the 1980s, when this IT pilot fish is a U.S. Navy tech supporting a predecessor to GPS called Loran.

"One day I was in the midst of standard maintenance and happened to walk into the timer room," fish says. "There, two electronics specialists -- both well above my pay grade -- were working on a UPS battery backup that had failed."

And that's not a minor problem. This particular UPS keeps the timer equipment for the Loran system up and running in case of a blackout or brownout. And because ships use Loran for navigation by comparing the difference between two ground-based radio signals, even a brownout can cause the signals to be off by femtoseconds -- with potentially catastrophic results.

What's worse, this naval installation has only one spare UPS, which has already been swapped in for this unit -- and the site is located on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Getting a replacement through official procurement channels will take weeks, and it will probably have to wait for the next supply flight after it finally arrives at a base on the mainland.

That means patching up the faulty UPS is a critical priority. But, as the two electronics specialists tell fish, they've not only replaced all the batteries but also traced all wires and removed and individually checked all major capacitors, inductors and resistors.

But whenever they turn the unit on, it goes into "reverse transfer" mode -- the UPS can only provide power from the wall outlet. Since all the individual components check out as good, the output should be good too, but it's not. It just doesn't make sense.

Reports fish, "Since they knew more than me, I asked the only question that made sense to me given what they had told me: 'Did you check the battery fuse?'

"They looked at each other with that wide-eyed look humans get when they realize something, and I quickly vacated the room.

"The UPS was up and running within two minutes."

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