Collapse and Crash

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State, which collapsed in high winds shortly after it was built, November 1940

Throughout my adult life, I’ve crossed the Crown Point Bridge connecting Vermont with the Adirondacks across Lake Champlain. Built in 1929, it was one of the first continuous truss road bridges constructed in the US. Then governor Franklin Roosevelt addressed the celebration, which drew 50,000 farmers and their families from both sides of the lake; the new span heralded a “wedding after more than 150 years” between the two states, he said, and added that he was sure there “would be no divorce.” Airplanes crisscrossed the sky overhead, and according to the New York Times correspondent, one pilot “risked his neck in a sudden swoop beneath the arched roadway of the bridge, with less than a 100 feet headroom.” But the grand celebration was marred by at least one small failure:

A specially constructed ferryboat …was scheduled to be destroyed by dynamiting to symbolize the passing of an era, but something went wrong with the charge and the boat continued to float arrogantly when the throngs started homeward along roads choked with traffic.

Henry Petroski would not be startled by that small failure, nor by the larger failure of the entire bridge after eighty years. Indeed, he briefly describes in his engaging book the October 2009 inspection that discovered that the Crown Point Bridge was badly cracked—so badly that a few weeks later it was closed forever, and then demolished with high explosives to make sure it wouldn’t fall on passing boaters. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that no failure surprises Petroski. His classic first book, To Engineer Is Human (1985), whose title sets up twenty-seven years later this book’s pun, also dealt with failure, as do many of his columns in The American Scientist. “A single failure…is a source of knowledge we might not have gained in any other way.” They reveal “weaknesses in reasoning, knowledge, and performance that all the successful designs may not even hint at.” “The best way of achieving lasting success is by more fully understanding failure.”

It’s also the best way of entertaining an audience not necessarily gripped by engineering as a topic. Dams and bridges have their beauty—but collapsed dams and fallen bridges can be more fun to describe, albeit ghoulish fun. Reading these pages reminds us of how many spectacular failures have occupied the news pages for a week or two in our lifetimes: the Aloha Airlines flight where part of the fuselage peeled away, the collapsed cranes in midtown Manhattan, even the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. (In recent weeks, of course, it has been the horrific collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory that has captured global attention, though that seems less a story of engineering stupidity than human cupidity—indeed, the day before the collapse, an engineer,…

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