Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Guessing at the size of Sewall Brown

Back of the envelope calculations are a favorite tool for engineers; we love them so we can quickly pronounce that something's impossible, stupid, or criminal. Or maybe it might just work...

So here's a fun bit of guesswork using back of the envelope calculations: how big would a typical packing shed - maybe that Sewall Brown apricot pit plant which I was guessing used to be a Sunsweet plant? It's not on the Sanborn maps, and there's few pictures, so I don't know the actual size of the building. Luckily, this article from the Los Gatos Weekly Times references some period news reports of the fire that burned out Sewall Brown:

"Five units responded to the fire on Sept. 20, 1955, but the 53-year-old wooden stucture that was filled with 2,000 tons of apricot pits was lost, reported the Los Gatos Times-Observer."

Ok, we now know that Sewall Brown's building was probably built in 1902, and it was big enough for *4 million pounds* of apricot pits. A random site on the internet declares that apricot pits have a density of 440.78 kg/m3. If we do some math and conversions to and from metric, that implies that Sewall Brown had about 4000 m^3, or 111,000 cubic feet of apricot pits. That's a 100 x 139 foot barn, or a 100 x 69 foot barn packed 16 feet high.

That's an awful lot of apricot kernels. It almost seems like too many apricot kernels.

The Santa Clara County Fire District historic site has some photos with little detail, but cites this about that fire:

"Apricot pit fire, 20 September 1955. A processing plant, barn and tons of apricot pits were destroyed in this fire on the Santa Clara-Los Gatos road at Vasona Junction. The pits oil was extracted for use in cosmetics and other product. 25 firefighters from the Quito, Cambrian and San Tomas stations fought the blaze under the direction of B/C Jim Ackley. The heat was so intense that two firefighters, Captain Del Coombs and FF Roger Hodgson burned their hands trying to connect a hose to a fire hydrant 100 feet from the burning building. Bulldozers were used to spread the pits to hasten extinguishing of the fire. Lower left photo shows FF Ray Lubert and Captain Walt Cunningham working hoses over the red hot pits. Photos from newspaper clippings."

That comment about bulldozing the pits makes me wonder if the pits were stored outside in the summer so that they didn't need the huge barn. I'll let someone else do the math to figure out whether the Santa Clara Valley could produce 2000 tons of apricot kernels in a single season.

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