Scott Arnold's Blog

The Return of Johnny Tundra, Cold-Weather Engineer

Fifteen years ago, Ron Wilkinson was working as chief engineer for the Architecture & Engineering Division of the State of Montana. His job took him to the far corners of Big Sky Country, where he was exposed to many odd engineering problems related to—not surprisingly—cold weather.

“At the time, our state claimed the record cold temperature in the contiguous 48 states,” Ron recently recalled. “When it gets 70 degrees below zero, strange things happen.”

This marked the beginning of Ron’s experience as a commissioning authority. At the time, most commissioning case studies focused on problems of moisture incursion in air-conditioned buildings in hot and humid climates. Ron wanted to call attention to cold-weather problems in Montana and other Northern Tier states.

“I had done—and still do—a lot of conventional articles, papers, and conference sessions,” Ron said. “I wanted to do something that was fun and that described the American ‘can-do’ attitude in the context of actual engineering problems.”

Drawing on his experiences traversing The Treasure State, Ron set out writing a series of mystery/adventure stories starring the “troubleshooter from Big Timber,” Johnny Tundra, Cold-Weather Engineer.

A combination of John Wayne and fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Johnny is “calm, cool, and irreversibly logical,” Ron said. He travels the Montana countryside, his 15-year-old Basset Hound, Gas Train, by his side, in a 1972 International Harvester Scout. It may not be the most stylish of rides, but Johnny doesn’t care.

“His work is everything,” Ron explained, “but his own home remodel jobs are perpetually unfinished because he drops everything to go to the next emergency.”

Johnny “amazes those around him as he saves their bacon” and “knocks himself out with a new lesson learned every day,” but he is no superhero, Ron said.

“Although Johnny may seem to be a genius, he never solves anything that his friends could not solve for themselves eventually,” Ron said. “He just cuts through the fretting and worry and sees the problem—and solution—as clear as day.”

The key for Johnny is that he “approaches engineering as applied innate curiosity, rather than a profit-making business model,” Ron said. “He is an incompetent politician and marginal businessperson, and this empowers him to concentrate on the simple wonder of how things work, rather than simply saying the right things to make people happy. He likes to approach technical problems as detective stories, pulling bits and pieces of the picture together until the solution appears before his eyes.”

The aim of the stories, Ron said, “is to emphasize the beauty, simplicity, and wonder of natural science as applied to MEP engineering. The world is, indeed, a series of science problems waiting to be solved; the more pure the motive, the more ready the answer.”

If you subscribed to HPAC Engineering’s Fastrack electronic newsletter prior to 2009, you may recall Johnny Tundra. If you did, but don’t, well, I can hardly fault you. Beyond-the-norm content like this requires special care in terms of packaging, explanation to the audience, and promotion beyond the audience. To the best of my recollection, the stories received little, if any, of that; they just started appearing in newsletters like any other piece of content. As a result, they never really caught on with readers, and the series eventually fizzled out. I always regretted that.

With the growing popularity of online photo galleries and the explosion of social media, the time for a revival of Johnny Tundra seems right. With that, I am pleased to announce the “rebooting of the franchise,” to use a Hollywood expression, as a series of “graphic galleries.” Please check out the first installment, “Don’t Shoot the Boiler." Share it with colleagues, and let us know what you think by either posting in the comments section or dropping me a line at scott.arnold@penton.com.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on Jun 15, 2015

Getting interesting and curious people involved by using social media and the stories that are like Johnny Tundra is what our Trades need desperately. Great work, Scott, on the revival of Johnny Tundra! Also, stay tuned for the Walgreens Net Zero Story by Jason Robbins coming soon!

on Jan 5, 2016

very enjoyable and educating stories

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Described by a colleague as "a cyborg ... requir(ing) virtually no sleep, no time off, and bland nourishment that can be consumed while at his desk" who was sent "back from the...
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