Plugging Along

The Saale Industrial Zone, winter 1633-34

Larry Karickhoff turned the key of the pickup. The engine fired a few times, backfired, and stopped.

“What’s the hold up, Larry? Day’s over, everyone wants to get home,” Johann Rademacher said.

Larry tried the engine again, with the same result. “I dunno, Johann.” He flicked the fuel gauge. It remained steady. “Fuel’s okay. I’ll pop the hood and take a look.”

Johann waited while Larry climbed out and opened the hood. There was a tapping on the glass behind him.

“Johann, what’s the hold up?”

The workers in the back wanted to know what was happening. He climbed out of the cab to explain. “The engine won’t start. Herr Karickoff is having a look.”

“The same thing happened last week in this truck. Herr Straley said it was the spark plugs. He took them out and cleaned them and he was able to get the truck running again,” Heinrich Bischoff offered.

“Thank you. I’ll tell him. Hopefully the problem isn’t serious and we can get home before dark.”

Johann hated to disturb a man working on an engine, but it had to be done. He walked around to stand beside Larry. “Heinrich says there was trouble with the spark plugs last week.”

 

Larry wiped his hands on his pants, then reached into the cab for the vehicle log book and flipped pages, checking the entries. “Shit! Typical bloody Norton. Has a problem and doesn’t record it in the log.” Larry made a note in the logbook, then put it back where it belonged before grabbing the tool box and returning to the engine.

* * *

“Damn it!” Larry waved the spark plug toward Johann and the others. “If any of you have to be anywhere soon, I suggest you start walking. This truck ain’t going nowhere without a tow.”

“What is the problem? If Norton could get the engine going by just cleaning the spark plugs, why can’t you?” Johann asked.

“Because not only are they dirty, but this one’s ground electrode is broken.” Larry passed Johann the spark plug.

Johann held the spark plug up to see what the problem was. It was obviously very dirty, but . . . “What is a ground electrode?”

Larry handed him another spark plug. “See that little bit of metal hanging off the bottom? That’s the ground electrode.”

Johann could easily see the difference. “But why do you need to tow the vehicle? Can’t it run on just seven cylinders?”

Larry shook his head. “It could run on just the seven cylinders. Not well, but well enough to get us home. But what’s happened to that bit of metal? I hope it just fell off onto the ground. Because there’s no telling what damage it could do floating around in a running engine.”

“Ouch. Yes, I see. So you won’t be running this truck until you find the missing piece of metal?”

“Or at least prove it isn’t in the engine. Then we have to weld on a new ground electrode.”

“Why don’t you just get another spark plug? ”

Larry stifled a laugh. “Where from? Nobody’s making new plugs and nobody’s selling their stock. We’ve still got a few left, but we’re trying to put off using them as long as possible.”

“They don’t look as if they’d be too hard to make. Why hasn’t anybody tried?”

“No idea, Johann. You’re the guy with all the fancy letters after his name. Why don’t you try it?”

 

December 1633

Johann Rademacher B.A., M.A. (Leiden) slammed his fists down on the workbench and screamed to the heavens. “What am I doing wrong?”

Aurene O’Keefe, who had been attracted to the work room by a continuous stream of swearing in no fewer than four languages, poked her head around the door. “Having a bit of trouble?”

Johann spun around at Aurene’s voice. “My apologies for my intemperate language, Frau O’Keefe.”

“Accepted. So what’s all the fuss?”

“My latest attempt to make a spark plug failed. I’m at a loss what to do next.”

“Um . . . How much do you know about spark plugs?”

“Not a lot personally, but Larry has been a considerable help.”

Aurene snorted. “You can probably write what Larry knows about the things on a postage stamp. Have you thought about checking out the library?”

“No, Frau O’Keefe.”

“Then maybe it’s about time you did, don’t you think?”

Embarrassed, Johann could only nod in silence.

 

O’Keefe’s, Two weeks later

Larry shook his head in disbelief. “You paid five grand for someone to go to the library and look in a few books. Hell, I’d have done it for free if you’d asked.”

Johann pulled three sheets of paper off the top of the bundle of pages. “No. I paid five thousand dollars for these three pieces of paper.”

“Three pieces of paper are worth five grand? Pull the other one; it’s got bells on it.”

Johann grinned. “I will happily pull your other leg. When those three pages represent the considered analysis of all the available information by none other than Father Nicholas Smithson, then they are definitely well worth the “five grand,” as you call it. These three pages are a cheat sheet for making spark plugs.”

“What? Let me see. Hey, I can’t read this. What language is it?”

“Latin, of course. Now to see about making us some spark plugs.”

 

O’Keefe’s, a month later

Johann ripped open the package from Melba Sue Freeman’s ceramics and porcelain company. Inside, in individual wrappings, were a dozen porcelain insulators. Carefully he unwrapped one. The shiny white insulator was beautiful. He reached over for one of the damaged up-time spark plugs and compared them. The insulators looked identical, except for the markings. Ever hopeful, Johann had already decided on the name he wanted.

Then he started to assemble the Grantville-Zuendkerze-Kompanie’s very first Series One spark plug.

* * *

With a dozen finished spark plugs in his basket, Johann went looking for Larry. He needed to prove they worked.

With Larry in tow, Johann headed for the workshop. First they tested them in the lawn mower. All of them worked.

“Well, Larry, what do you think?”

“I think you’re going to be revoltingly rich. Let’s try them in one of the trucks and see how well they work and how long they last.”

 

A month later

Johann sighed. It didn’t look like he was going to get revoltingly rich manufacturing spark plugs. At least not any time soon. He’d invested heavily into producing a standard size plug, as that should have been where most of the demand was. However, it looked like that might have been a mistake.

There were just too many of the standard-size plugs in Grantville, many of them still in vehicles that had been up on blocks since the Ring of Fire.

One problem was performance. Even reconditioned up-time spark plugs performed better than his. If they had been noticeably cheaper than reconditioning up-time spark plugs, he might have had better sales. But at the price he had to charge to make a profit, sales so far had been worse than disappointing.

He looked the expensive equipment sitting idle on the workbench, and at the boxes of finished product stacked against the wall. Sure, there was some demand as up-time spark plugs failed beyond repair, but there was no driving need for lots of his new spark plugs. Not yet. What he needed was something to generate demand. Like someone making new engines. Because new engines would need new spark plugs.

Until then, it was back to designing plumbing installations.

* * *

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