Retrotechtacular: Pipeline to the Arctic

They said it couldn’t be done, and perhaps it shouldn’t have been attempted. Shouldas and couldas aside, the oil crisis of the 1970s paved the legislative way for an 800-mile pipeline across the Alaskan frontier, and so the project began. The 48-inch diameter pipe sections would be milled in Japan and shipped to Alaska. Sounds simple enough. But of course, it wasn’t, since the black gold was under Prudhoe Bay in Alaska’s North Slope, far away from her balmy southern climes.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was constructed in three sections: from Valdez to Fairbanks, Fairbanks to a point in the Brooks Pass, and south from Prudhoe Bay to the mountain handoff. Getting pipe to the Valdez and Fairbanks is no big deal, but there is no rail, no highway, and no standard maritime passage to Prudhoe Bay. How on earth would they get 157 miles worth of 58-foot sections of pipe weighing over 8 tons each up to the bubblin’ crude?

Barges! Ridiculously huge, specifically-built barges with 35-foot stanchions to hold pipe sections stacked on decks as large as football fields. Four barges were built close to the steel mills, two in Japan and two in Hong Kong. Several other barges were constructed stateside, departing regularly from Tacoma to meet the demanding timeline of the project. The barges headed for Prudhoe Bay from Asia would be towed 3300 miles by a pair of heroic tugboats to rendezvous with the other barges at Nome.

About 150 miles from Prudhoe Bay, the tugs encountered the arctic ice floe as expected. What they didn’t expect was no sign of an open channel. Time was of the essence here: if they didn’t make it to Prudhoe and back within about a month, they’d be mired in ice all winter long. Each tug was towing two barges in tandem. Since no channel ever opened, they decided to anchor each tug’s rear barge, take the lead barges through the ice all nice and easy, and come back for the rest. Ninety miles of ice cakes and cursing later, they reached the open waters of the Arctic Ocean and floored it for Prudhoe Bay. Pretty slick stuff, eh?

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

42 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Pipeline to the Arctic

  1. Assuming the volume of the pipes was the limiting factor, and not the weight, I’d think they would make half the pipes slightly larger and the other half slightly smaller, so a smaller pipe could be transported inside a bigger one. Only a few adaptor sections would be needed, I’d think the extra cost of the larger sections or extra resistance of the smaller sections would not be significant compared to the cost of transportation.

    Of course, shipping cut-to-size flat steel plates, and shipping machinery to bend and weld the pipe on-side (possibly on the ship itself) would also seem like an possible solution.

    On the other hand, the “vanilla solution” of building barges to stack the pipes sufficiently high and wide, so the weight is the limiting factor, instead of the volume, seems fairly low-risk.

    Imagine the wedges holding the last pipe of these giant stacks would accidentally be knocked out…

    1. Making a pipe increase and decrease size a lot actually increases friction significantly.
      Also because of the nature of pipelines it would be very impracticable because it would be difficult to clean the pipe with a pig – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pigging. Having the pipeline be the same size allows them to send a large ringed pig down the line to scrape it clean every now and again.

    2. It’s half inch stainless. The machinery that makes it is freaking huge, and you can’t just sit that kind of weight on permafrost. It would sink into the ground after a day or two.

  2. where is the hack. this sounds like HAD is leaving it’s roots. reminds me of something that would be blasted on discovery channel or history channel. used to visit this site first thing every morning and multiple times during the day and was excited about the new things that could be done with average stuff you could salvage or had lying around the house/shop. now i’m informed of new kickstarters and every once in a while an actual neat hack. seems like when the old HAD was sold, it changed for the worse. i miss old HAD.

    1. You realize these retrotechtaculars are something we’ve been doing for years now? Hold on. Yeah, I just checked. We’ve been doing these for a year and a half now.

      But anyway, let’s go through the rest of your complaint.

      > used to visit this site first thing every morning and multiple times during the day and was excited about the new things that could be done with average stuff you could salvage or had lying around the house/shop.

      You remember what was good. You don’t remember the ‘meh’ stuff. Just for kicks, let’s take a look at an archive.org copy from 2008. We have PWM generation with an AVR. If that was posted, there would be cries of, ‘where’s the hack?’ and ‘not a hack.’

      Oh wait. There were people saying ‘not a hack’ back in 2008

      So, yeah. Hackaday has always been going downhill, but only because you remember the highlights and forget the day-to-day postings.

      1. Personally I think the frequency and quality of posts have gone up significantly since the acquisition. I’m still not a huge fan of the new site layout, but hey, it’s your site, do what you want!

        Thanks for all of your hard work!

      2. Hackaday does what it says on the tin. 1 hack everyday. They have beat that average almost every day. The rest of the stuff is just geek knowledge. It hurts my brain every time someone complains that there is too much avr hacks, and then someone says “this is hackaday blahblah blah”. 1 hack per day on average. if you want more or less too bad. No one else cares. Hackaday is still here because the adverts say that its profitable. Don’t like it, move on.

      3. don’t care if you like it or not. i said what i said and just like my opinion, your opinion means nothing to anyone except yourself.if you didn’t work at HAD as an editor, then you would have probably not said anything. besides the retrotechtaculars have generally always had something to do with technology. they laid a large pipe across the ocean. yes it was a great challenge and used very large ships. still not a lot to do with technology. not that its not amazing. that’s why i said i thought that it could have been on “modern marvels” or something similar.

      4. Or how about even further back in the ’05, ’06 era when it was literally 1 hack each day? While I miss the old black and green color scheme, I’ll admit that it is only out of nostalgia. The site has taken some fantastic strides forward recently. You and your team are doing great work Brian.

  3. This is a short narrow history lesson on shipping pipe to Alaska, nothing more, where are the thousands of welds, inspections, engineering solutions to building on permafrost. expansion and contraction issues. All I saw was a bunch of pipe, reminds me of the movie Forest Gump when Bubba is talking about the kinds of shrimp there are… anyone else see something I missed?

  4. Rode the Dalton from Fairbanks to the slope last year – right along the pipe the whole way. Pretty amazing stuff. Never put two and two together that the giant dirt road highway wouldn’t have been there when they first built the pipeline…

  5. I know a guy who did welding work on that pipeline. He’s 82 years old now. They had tents over the line and heaters to warm the ends of the pipe up to the proper temperature. It took hours to warm it up. Then he’d go in and weld the joint. After the welding, the heat had to slowly cut down over hours to prevent stress cracks from cooling too fast. Once that was done, the joint had to be X-rayed all around to check for cracks.

  6. After watching this, I have two questions (which I’d be surprised if anyone knows the answer):

    1) Why did they ship 2/3 of the pipe to Tacoma first, and 1/3 directly to Alaska? Why not send all the barges to Japan to pick up the pipe there?

    2) How would this job be done today? The same way? Or has a better way been developed in the past 50 years?

    1. I wonder why they haven’t decided to poke a tunnel through the mountains. Wayyyy back when I was in 7th grade we saw a documentary on the pipeline in metal shop class.

      Going up the mountains the guys welding inside were suspended on slings. Falling inside the pipe would have been a loooooong and most likely deadly slide to the bottom. They they would’ve had to cut a hole in the pipe to get the body out.

    2. Anything shipped to Alaska is required to go through a port in the Continental United States prior to being shipped to Alaska. It’s called the Jones Act. It was “supposed” to be revoked upon Alaska becoming a state, but California, Oregon and Washington (along with the shipping and longshoremen unions) voted it down.

  7. I have a friend who worked on the pipeline. After work hours, he would spin some crazy tales about the culture of the people who worked there. Their antics were just as extreme as the environment. He eventually decided to write books and he turned out a pretty good work of fiction about his experience. It’s called Death Below Zero. Check it out if you want a good feel for how crazy it was.

    1. I can’t believe you bothered to read through the comments and follow that up with a semi-troll. It says “Retrotechtacular” in the title. How hard is it to simply not click the link?

      FWIW I enjoy the ret-tech articles and hope they are here to stay.

    2. > FYI: I am one of those people who didn’t like this “retrotechtacular” stuff, but the editors are not doing a good job at listening to my complains.

      Alright, I get it. If you’re pissed off that the editors just brush off any criticism, okay. Fine. I’ll accept that as an argument. However, you need to support your argument. Just saying, “I don’t like this content” doesn’t work. Saying ‘not a hack’ doesn’t work – we’re immune to that by now. If you have something to say, say it. Argue it. Don’t just state your premise and leave it at that. Give me something to think about. Anything else, and it’s a whine.

      Saying Hackaday has gone downhill since it was sold is a fallacy and untrue – we have been able to produce more original content consistent with our editorial prerogative because we were sold. And yes, even more OC is coming.

      I mean seriously, you’re going to say, “Well, Hackaday just had a great historical account of Czechoslovak computers, but things were better when they were zapping plants with a stun gun.” That’s just ridiculous.

      Concerning the retrotechtaculars – and this is my argument for continuing them, by the way – I’m looking at data. Views, specifically, and there is no reason for us to move away from these kinds of posts. Purely from an economic standpoint, these posts work. It’s no secret here that every post need not be a hack, merely interesting to the readership. The retrotechtaculars pass that test as well. Add in the fact that this is evergreen content that can be produced weeks in advance, and we have something that is a pleasure to deal with. From the standpoint of an editor, it’s honestly awesome having these posts. There’s always something to write up, it gets enough views to work, and people seem to enjoy it. It’s awesome all around for editors, writers, and readers.

      Now, that’s my argument for keeping the retrotechtaculars. If you would like to argue this, please do so. I have never been accused of having a heavy-handed moderation policy, and your comments will be seen. I am open to suggestions, provided they more than a simple whine. Give me something to think about.

      1. I get the feeling that if he had given the subject enough thought that he could produce an intelligible, cogent argument he would have also inevitably reached the conclusions that a) no one cares, and b) comments on a random-ass post aren’t the right venue for meta-discussion and editorial standards.

      2. Thanks for the reply, Bryan. Keep up the good job as a excuse-finder!.

        You may know more than me that when you have a “bond” with a website, you go to the last resource in order to suggest what YOU (as an individual) think about it. I have a bond with Hackaday, and as a maker (and electrical engineering student) I feel compelled to suggest that historical pipeline construction issues is not interesting to me.

        But of course if you have the data, you have the power to say that this session of the website is doing well. And I have no argument against that.

  8. Now this is what I don’t understand… I’m not a Retrotechtacular fan, so I just ignore those links and read the other awesome stuff thrown my way. I read this one since I work in the oil & gas industry, but in the future, if I don’t like the topic, I just skip. I’ve got a life and way to many projects on hand to be bored, so I don’t have time to read every single article anycase.

    And the articles I like, some of you don’t, and the articles you like, I might not. The HaD team is doing a good job with capturing the eyes and minds of a diverse audience.

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