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Barometer measures creative solutions

“There is more than one way to skin a cat.” It’s an unusual phrase that dates back to the early 1600s. It is a saying often used to explain that there is more than one way to reach a goal or solve a problem.

Whenever we are faced with a mind-bending dilemma and the solution might be obvious, it is sometimes best to step back and think about what the alternative solutions might be rather than jump to the first solution that pops into your head.

I was faced with a such a dilemma years ago when a customer wandered into our office looking to have an autopilot installed on his 60-foot “Double Ender” sailboat. This sailing vessel was a bit unusual since the rudder was external to the hull and had a long tiller arm that the helmsman would move manually to steer the vessel. Adapting a mechanical device to the arm in a fashion that was waterproof, clean in appearance and easily removable was the challenge.

While the “skin a cat” saying came into mind, I preferred the barometer method instead. A science professor at a local university was giving a lecture one day and asked the class how they could use a barometer to figure out the height of one of the town’s tallest buildings. The answer the professor was looking for was the most logical as he explained how the barometer worked measuring atmospheric pressure. Simply, one could use the barometer to take a measurement at the base of the building and take another reading at the top. The difference in pressure reading would calculate the building’s height.

Johnny, from the back of the classroom, was the first to raise his hand. “I have the answer, professor,” Johnny shouted. “I would take the barometer to the rooftop of the building and drop it, watching it crash to the sidewalk below. I would then measure the time it took to travel and with a simple calculation determine the height of the building.”

“No Johnny, that isn’t the answer I was looking for,” the professor exclaimed.

“OK, professor, how about this? I would take the elongated-shaped barometer and starting at the bottom of the building on the window washing platform, I would walk it up the side of the building and count the number of times it was walked end over end, multiply that number by the length of the instrument and that would determine the height of the building.”

“Johnny, again, that isn’t the correct answer,” the professor said. “However, I do have to admit that you did come up with an alternative way of solving the problem. Do you have any other ideas that you could share with us?”

“Yes sir,” Johnny responded. “I would take that shinny new barometer down to the basement where the building maintenance supervisor has an office and I would offer it to him if he would tell me the height of the building.”

“Excellent, Johnny,” the professor hesitantly replied. “Please tell the class why you came up with all of these interesting ideas.”

“Well,” Johnny explained, “I just wanted to illustrate that there are a number of ways to skin a cat.”

G. Kevin Savord is currently a professional pilot and former small business owner. He can be reached at gksavord@gmail.com.

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