The 3rd-grade class dutifully lines up single file – just as their teacher directs. Each of them is wearing a brightly colored hard hat.
A young man, gaunt and excitable, strides to the front of their line. He is holding a similar hat in his hand.
“Welcome, kids!” he announces, in an energetic voice.
The kids basically ignore him. With a few exceptions, they’re bored.
The man is used to that.
“My name is Franklin James and I work here. We’re going to have a great tour today. I guarantee you you’ll learn something interesting.
“Now, before we get started, let me remind you all that you have to keep your hard hats on. We are entering a very dangerous area and so we do everything we can to keep you safe.”
A few of the kids, boys mostly, perk up. They like danger.
Franklin slaps his hard hat on to his thin dark hair.
“Is everybody ready?”
A few kids mumble, “Yes.”
Franklin tries again, “I can’t hear you. Is everybody ready?”
“Yes,” say the kids in unison, knowing what was coming and wanting to get through it.
“Louder.” says Franklin, cupping his ear.
“Yes,” shout the kids, finding themselves into it – despite their own commitment to ambivalence.
“GREAT!” says Franklin, smiling broadly. “Follow me!”
He walks up to a nearby door, punches in his access code, and waits while it opens.
When it does, he strides through it and on to a large viewing platform. He gestures for the kids to follow him and they do.
Far below, the plant’s equipment is chugging away.
“Okay, class,” says Franklin, “We’re inside. Now, who can tell me what’s down there.”
One kid raises his hand. “Yes?” asks Franklin.
“Turbines,” says the kid. He has unassuming brown hair, brown eyes and a face that is easy to forget.
“Very good!” says Franklin, “What’s your name?”
“Michael,” says the kid.
“Okay, Michael,” says Franklin, “Can you explain what those turbines do?”
“They use steam to generate electrical power,” says the kid.
“Very good!” says Franklin, genuinely impressed, “Now, who can tell me who invented the steam engine?”
Only Michael’s hand pops up.
“Anybody else?” asks Franklin.
“Brother Paul James of the Monks of Benedictine.”
“Excellent!” says Franklin, “I’m guessing you know when?”
“In the year 1025,” says Michael.
“Very good,” says Franklin, “You must be a junkie for this stuff. For most of us, what we’re about to hear is such a boring fact of life that it isn’t worth listening too. But it is what makes our world go around. It is how we eat and drink and how our society can pay for the homes we live in. It may be hidden behind the scenes, but it is very very important.”
He pauses, “Let me tell you all a story.”
Young ears perk up, this might actually get interesting.
“In 800 AD, there was a campaign throughout Europe to get rid of a common pest. The hero of the campaigners was a man named George – who, in a miscalculation, had been made a saint by the Church. The pest consumed sheep and cattle, set homes on fire, terrorized peasants and made a general nuisance of itself. Men called Knights would suit up and ride to battle the pests – at great danger to themselves. Many Knights were killed, but slowly and surely they cut down the numbers of their prey. They were hunting them to extinction.”
All the kids’ eyes were on Franklin.
“And then something changed. A man named Paul of Worms decided to capture one of the pests. He was a very very rich man and he assembled an armored suit of the finest gold. But he didn’t put it on. Instead, he approached the lair of one of these pests – which are called dragons, and he offered the dragon the suit of gold. And the dragon trusted him. And left his lair. And Paul took the dragon home. He fed it live sheep. And he offered it yet more gold. And the dragon stayed.
“Now, the dragon would have been a neat pet for Paul. But Paul was really interested in studying the creature. A lot of what we know about dragons is due to him. He studied their fire and learned that it could instantly turn water to steam. He studied their skin and learned that it was regularly shed. He sampled, at great risk to himself, the dragon’s blood. And he learned that it healed him. Now, Paul wasn’t sure what to do with all of this. But he assembled a small group of dragons and he, and his children, and his children’s children kept the beasts safe from the Knights. It was all very expensive though, and the family was soon spending almost everything they had on keeping their dragons.
“Does anybody know what happens next?”
Michael’s hand shoots up. “Michael?”
“Paul’s grandson made a suit of dragonskin,” says the kid.
“That’s right!” says Franklin.
“Paul’s grandson, Peter of Worms, made a suit of dragonskin. And it was better than any suit any Knight had ever had before. It could not be pierced. It was extremely lightweight. And it garnered him great success in battle. Before long, Kings and Lords and Knights throughout Europe were begging him for their own suits of dragonskin armor. And soon, he was selling them everywhere. He sold dragonskin suits to China and India. And opened up the trade routes as faraway merchants came to Europe bearing spices and other finery in exchange for his suits. Suddenly, Paul’s descendants could afford their dragons. Others sought out dragons of their own, but they were otherwise extinct and so Paul’s family alone controlled the business.
“Nothing much had changed though. The world was opening up with trade, a few wealthy Lords had accumulated great power with their new armor, but otherwise things were as they long had been. There were serfs and slaves. There was farming that barely fed the farmers. The world was a very poor place. And then Brother Paul James invented the steam turbine.”
“Can anybody tell me what it does?” asks Franklin, ignoring that Michael already had.
Another kid raises his hand.
“Dragons breathe fire on water and it turns it into power,” says the kid, quietly.
“Very good,” says Franklin, “Dragon’s fire-breath is the hottest thing known to man. It turns water to steam instantly. If a dragon were to breath fire on you, your arm would just disappear. Brother Paul James discovered that he could use that steam to drive a turbine. And that turbine could drive a factory. And, in 1025 AD, the Industrial Revolution was born. It took a few years to get going. Just breeding enough dragons took time. But before long, any city that hoped to compete in the world needed its own dragon-driven industry. What happened next?”
Michael answers, “James the Great.”
“Yes,” says Franklin, “James the Great discovers electricity. Suddenly, dragon fire-breath in one place can be used to boil water in, or heat, a private home – at a totally different time. The benefits of dragon-breath are spread all over. It is a whole new era and a host of electrical possibilities are opened up. Lights, batteries, elevators and much much more.”
Franklin gestures down towards the factory floor.
“Down below, we have over 100 dragons breathing fire. Dragon Industry Enterprises is the same organization created by Paul of Worms those many years ago. We are the only Dragon operator on the globe. We have tens of thousands of local dragons in many many communities. We have a fantastic record for safety, few dragons ever escape. But even though we are in a very comfortable spot, we are doing everything we can to push dragon-based industry forward. Does anybody know some of the things were working on?”
“Electric Carriages!” says an excited voice.
“Very good,” says Franklin, “Electric carriages. With today’s batteries, we think you can take an electric motor and a battery and drive your carriage – without a horse! It will open up a world of possibility. Anything else?”
“Building materials?” asks a kid.
“Good,” says Franklin, “We are looking at ways of breaking Dragon-skin down and making very strong and light building materials. Those are a few of our more exciting programs. But we’re also looking at other things, like raising the amount of blood we can extract from each dragon – to enable everybody can have equal access to healthcare. Handling dragons is dangerous and expensive, but we’re the best at it. We’ve been doing it for over 1200 years and we expect to be doing it for a lot more time.”
“Now, let’s take a tour of the building!”