AUGUST 21, 2015
ON A COOL, CLEAR DAY in May 1980, Ed Drummond and Stephen Rutherford, two California schoolteachers in their 30s, pressed suction cups to the surface of the Statue of Liberty and began to climb. They started at the back of the statue, slowly making their way to the tops of its feet; from there, they planned to sneak up the folds of its metal robe and into a small crevice atop the left shoulder, where they would unfurl a banner, printed with the words “FREE GERONIMO PRATT.” Pratt was a Black Panther in prison for a crime he did not commit, and Drummond and Rutherford wanted New Yorkers to know all about it.
But before Drummond, who was in the lead, made it beyond the crook of the statue’s right knee, he “realized this was not going to work.” His suction cups were failing. Lady Liberty’s copper skin was covered with millions of small bumps, which prevented his gear from getting a proper grip. What made matters worse, though, was the weakness of the copper itself. The statue was riddled with small holes, many of which sagged inward when Drummond applied his bodyweight. Unable to climb further, the two men spent the night on a ledge, their banner unused. When they reversed course the following morning, they were promptly arrested and charged with criminal trespass and damage to government property.
In the days that followed, though, it became clear that, while Drummond and Rutherford were indeed trespassers, they were not property damagers. A closer inspection of the holes in the Statue of Liberty’s copper skin revealed that they were not, as was assumed, caused by climbing gear or vandalism. They were caused by rust.
Rust — or corrosion, as it’s more generally known — is the product of a fairly simple chemical and physical process. One could argue that it quietly runs the world. The product of metal meeting moisture and oxygen, rust is present in some form wherever metal is exposed to air, which is nearly everywhere. Readers of a new book on the subject, Rust: The Longest War, by journalist Jonathan Waldman, will learn that metal deterioration poses the number one threat to the US Navy; that it accounts for nearly a quarter of the US military’s maintenance costs; and that avoiding and repairing it is costlier than all natural disasters combined, amounting to more than the GDP of Sweden.
Despite such vast expenditures, rust cannot be stopped, only slowed. No matter how tall our buildings, strong our bridges, or graceful our national monuments, they’re all, ultimately, headed for the trash heap. The best we can do is add another coat of paint and hope to forestall the inevitable. Rust, in other words, reveals a fundamental truth: it’s a red flaky trace of entropy. It ensures that everything that’s here today will be gone tomorrow.
Slowing corrosion’s creep is the business of thousands of people and hundreds of industries, from engineers to oil companies to, yes, the groundskeeper at the Statue of Liberty, many of whom are quite passionate and not unaware of the metaphysical implications of their work. With Rust, Waldman introduces us to these modern-day Sisyphuses — the men and women who spend their days thinking about new paints, alloys, and maintenance routines. (Okay, it’s mostly men: Waldman reports that the majority of corrosion engineers are named John, David, and Michael, and in that order.)
If you think a book featuring whole chapters on rust engineers would be a tough sell, you’re not alone. But the author has a knack for illuminating the strange dedication of his characters and brings narrative suspense to, say, 30 pages on the history of stainless steel. Among the most memorable of Rust’s characters is Dan Dunmire, the director of the US Department of Defense’s Office of Corrosion Policy and Oversight, who calls himself the “corrosion czar.” Officially, Dunmire is responsible for “the prevention and mitigation of corrosion of military equipment and infrastructure”; unofficially, his job, as he likes to put it, is “fighting the second law of thermodynamics.”
What this means in practice is educating government officials and cajoling military leaders to adopt new material and maintenance routines, like remembering to rinse and cover helicopters after they’ve flown. But lately, it’s also meant making films. The corrosion czar, who’s a die-hard Star Trek fan, managed to hire LeVar Burton, one of the show’s stars in the early ’90s, to narrate a series of videos about rust and its dangers. In a somewhat surreal set of scenes, Waldman relays some of the dialogue from the fifth rust-related film to feature Burton, titled Policies, Processes, and Projects: “The United States is a nation that earns a proud place on the world stage,” the Star Trek star explains to rolling cameras. “And yet, a subtle and silent enemy threatens all […] Buildings decay, pipelines explode, roadbeds crumble […] Corrosion, you see, whether on iron or any other material, is something that never stops […] That’s why we call it the pervasive menace.”
Despite the cheesy dialogue and somewhat dubious public value of his films, Dunmire and his office are undeniably effective in their work. From outfitting missiles with dehumidifiers and sealants to convincing the Air Force to install new gaskets in planes, the corrosion czar’s projects have an average return on investment approaching 50:1 — which means he’s saved billions of taxpayer dollars.
Money, of course, drives much of the fight against corrosion, and that’s especially true in private industry. The Ball Corporation, which is best known for its glass jars, is also one of the world’s largest manufacturers of aluminum cans. Ball employs 14 thousand people and produces nearly a quarter of the world’s beverage cans. And while the cans have become pervasive — people use 180 billion aluminum beverage cans a year — the risk of rust ruining the product and endangering consumers is ever present. In 2008, for example, a woman was blinded in one eye when a can of Diet Pepsi exploded as she opened it; similar explosions have lacerated hands and noses and caused startled drivers to run their cars off the road.
All it takes is a hole the size of a pin to send soda and aluminum shrapnel flying through the air — a fact that, when you consider the range of uses and environments to which we subject our cans, makes the work of can engineers seem nearly heroic. An average can of Coke, for example, is shipped across the country, stored for weeks, months, or years in a variety of conditions, and then gripped, dropped, shaken, and sipped. And that’s just what’s going on outside the can. Inside is an acidic concoction under 90 pounds of pressure, confined by a wall of aluminum only thousandths of an inch thick. That cans don’t rust, leak, and explode on a daily basis is almost miraculous.
In what might be Rust’s best chapter, Waldman attempts to enroll in the Ball Corporation’s “can school,” a three-day course in which the company’s engineers, chemists, and designers discuss such things as “pour rates” and “opening performance.” At first, Waldman is warmly welcomed to company headquarters — but when a manager learns he’s a reporter, his invitation is quickly revoked. Still, Waldman, too curious about what goes on behind the curtain at Ball to be rebuffed, shows up anyway. The ensuing confrontations, during which the author is hauled out of class like a student condemned to the principal’s office, make for great reading and perhaps the funniest scenes in the book.
Welcome or not, Waldman’s reporting from the Ball facility is fascinating. Speaking to an employee named Elmer, a plant manager whose background is in making machine parts for the aerospace industry, Waldman learns that today’s aluminum cans are manufactured with tolerances even tighter than those in aerospace — in some cases, says Elmer, he’s working within two or three millionths of an inch. In, on, and around that tiny space goes a liquid epoxy, which is applied with sprayers, injectors, fans, ovens, and things called “neckers” and “flangers,” all in service of building the first line of defense against rust, the gravest threat to a canned beverage. Given all this fine-tuned tinkering, it’s possible to make the case that the ubiquitous aluminum can is one of the most highly engineered products in history.
Can industry executives would likely agree with this last point, citing the variety of services their cans have been designed to provide, many of which are fundamental to modern life. Here’s what William Stolk, the CEO of the American Can Company, had to say during a public address in 1960:
[Cans] rank with the telephone, the automobile, and the electric light in the revolutionary effects they have had on modern living […] [T]hey have helped make possible our largest cities and smallest towns, and without them our whole population would be quite differently distributed.
It’s an argument that’s surely self-serving, but also, when you think about it, fairly convincing. In this light, the stakes of keeping corrosion away from the metal edges of our civilization are high.
It’s tempting to see Rust as the latest member in the recent subgenre of nonfiction books about oddball topics like milk, salt, and cod. But while it’s true that the subject of rust is used here as a lens to view culture (in keeping with the practice of the rest of the single-topic genre), Waldman also puts aside this agenda and simply tells us about rust. In his hands, this works: Waldman writes with such enthusiasm for his subject that it’s nearly impossible to avoid losing oneself in the debate over whether paint application or zinc coating is the best anti-corrosion tactic (this is a real, and heated, conversation). At the same time, though, Rust makes not just a larger cultural point but manages to dig into one aspect of culture itself: as humans, our never ending task is to keep the hedges trimmed, the lights on, and the world from giving in to its tendency to fall apart.
But fall apart it eventually will, and anything made of metal will be among the first things to go. In his 2007 book, The World Without Us, Alan Weisman speculated that, if humans were to suddenly leave Earth, most of the train bridges in Manhattan would be destroyed by rust within 20 years, and all of them would fail within a few hundred. After a few thousand years, the only intact metal structures would be located deep underground.
Until then, we’ll make an effort to keep the things we care about from falling into disrepair. Shortly after Ed Drummond and Stephen Rutherford inadvertently revealed that the Statue of Liberty had a bad rust problem, Lee Iacocca, then a Ford Motor Company executive and possessor of enormous wealth, raised funds to repair the statue. His campaign raised $277 million to fill the frame of Lady Liberty with stainless steel, paint the whole thing, and then cover it in a layer of epoxy. What stands in New York Harbor today is a remodeled and strengthened version of the original — but by no means a fixture of permanence. When Earth’s climate warms and cools, as it inevitably will, our national symbol is likely to be swept off her pedestal by rising seas or advancing glaciers, then left to rest at the bottom of the ocean, where, one day, she’ll turn to stone the color of rust.