Before taking a look at some engineering disasters consider this quote from one of the world’s greatest minds.
“Scientist Study the World as it is; engineers create the world that has never been”.–Theodore von Karman.
Let’s Get Started
- The General Idea
- Engineering Disaster
- Causes of Engineering Disaster
- Popular Cases of Engineering Disasters
- Enginneering Disasters: Vessels
- Enginneering Disasters: Infrastructures
- Enginneering Disasters: Aeronautics
- Enginneering Disasters: Nuclear and Radiation Accidents
- Enginneering Disasters: Industrial Disasters
- The Bottom-Line
The General Idea
It’s said that every technological success is praised as a great scientific achievement; and every technological failure is deemed an engineering disaster.
The prestige of the engineering profession is unrivaled. Engineering is the one single field of human study that has moved us from the flints and rocks of the stone age into the modern era. No other field of human study comes close.
The contributions of engineering goes above-and-beyond, reshaping reality, and making impossibly things real.
Engineers continue to make direct contributions to the economy, which happens to be the lifeblood of any human society.
Every industry and aspect of our economy depends on engineering and engineered-product and services for their operation and survival.
So, when considering the works of trailblazing engineers like Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Archimedes of Syracuse, the Wright brothers, or Nikola Tesla. It’s easy to view these heroes and, in fact, engineering professionals as the infallible artists of their craft.
But, once in a while, engineers make errors that remind us that they’re still humans and not perfect, yet.
However, the unique position of engineers in the society makes their error more catastrophic in every regard. Engineering mistakes are nothing like regular everyday issues because they can have damning consequences.
Consequences that, more often than not, results in the loss of lives, ususally in the hundreds, or even thousands, time wasted on design and construction, capital invested on the project, and damage to the environment.
Engineering as a field of study is made up of several cadres that are highlighted by their importance to society. From the fundamental chemical, civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering, to interdisciplinary engineering which includes 21 different disciplines like the basic engineering disciplines, with 124 major specialties.
Today, engineering disasters rarely happen. And even engineering disasters do happen, they inspire engineers to improve their techniques and learn from their mistakes.
Causes of Engineering Disasters
Although engineering errors and disasters have been greatly reduced to their barest minimum let’s take a look at some of the leading causes of these engineering disasters.
Some of the most dangerous engineering disasters have been caused by natural forces like earth wakes, movements in the fault lines, tsunamis, hurricanes, and other forces.
These disasters caused by natural forces usually have the highest casualties and damage.
For the longest time, these events were unpredictable, and difficult to plan for. Natural forces induce great stress, strain, and vibration that most engineering structures simply can’t withstand.
Lack of Safety
Today, more than ever, safety has become a highly prioritised issue in engineering.
But, before now, disasters that led to the explosion of NASA’s Challenger, were preceded by a failure in considering the ship’s safety.
Common safety tests like the finite element analysis (FEA), tensile testing, and failure theories are now used to ensure designers and engineers understand the amount of stress that can be applied on key regions of a structure, to avoid cases of deformation and overloading.
Static loading are forces that are gradually added on a structure or object and can determine the maximum loads that the said structure can withstand without failure or deformation.
Static loading includes tensile testing, bending testing, and torsional testing. Key information like the stress-strain curve provides relevant information about the materials.
Fatigue is the weakness of materials due to variations of stresses occurring in various points in the structure. Most failures are due to time-varying, dynamic loads that occur at various angles of the structure.
They lead to permanent deformation from exposure to constant loading or radical temperatures. These lead to creeps, a time-dependent plastic distortion of materials.
Other Popular Factors That Cause Engineering Disasters
- Software Errors
- Systems engineering
Popular Cases of Engineering Disasters
We can define a catastrophe as a tragedy that results in serious damage that may include the loss of life, and engineering disasters have contributed their fair share to the global catastrophe.
To a large degree, in-depth observations and post-disaster research have been reported to help mitigate the occurrence of similar disasters.
Engineering Disasters: Vessels
Titanic – The Unsinkable
Titanic remains one of the world’s most prominent marine engineering disasters. The event took more than 1,500 lives on board.
The Titanic, a passenger ship, sailed from Southampton for the first time and was headed to New York in April 1912. While on the seas, it collided with an iceberg.
After its collision with the iceberg, the British ship sunk. We’re considering the sinking of the Titanic is considered an engineering failure because, according to the tests conducted on multiple rivets, the ship was built out of very low-quality iron.
So, it didn’t surprise us to learn that the massive ship broke apart after its collision with the iceberg.
Although low-quality iron contributed to the Titanic’s sinking, another mistake that was later discovered was with the sixteen watertight compartments attached near the ceiling, and weren’t sealed individually.
The SS Sultana Steamboat Explosion – When Negligence Leads to Disaster
The SS Sultana was built in the town of Cincinnati and traveled across the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The steamboat boasted of highly sophisticated safety devices prevalent at the time.
But tragedy struck when three, out of the Sultana’s four boilers, exploded and the steamboat sank nearly 7 miles from Memphis. Somewhere between 1,500, and 1,800 passengers were lost in the disaster.
The steamboat transported nearly 2,300 passengers in 1865, including its crew, civilians, and prisoners of war.
According to the inquiry, the Sultana was found to be overloaded, something that made the tragedy worse. In addition, it was also confirmed that the leaking of the four boilers began a few days before the disaster and the repair was doubtful.
Engineering Disasters: Infrastructures
The Quebec Bridge – A Mistake Made Twice
It might not surprise you to learn that the Quebec Bridge in Canada has collapsed twice. The first time was in 1907, and the second time was in 1916. It’s estimated that this tragedy killed between 88-89 employees.
At the time, the Quebec bridge was the largest Cantilever Bridge in Canada, and the world. Sadly, at the time of the disaster in 1907, there were staffs working on the Cantilever Arm.
This event led to the death of 55 people, either because of the falling rubble, or because of drowning.
Disasters like these could’ve been easily avoided if competent CAD software was used in the design process.
The Collapse of Charles De Gaulle Airport – Engineering Failure Personified
One of the greatest engineering failures was experienced in the catastrophe of Charles de Gaulle airport. The airport was inaugurated in May 2004, and a large portion of the roof of Terminal 2E collapsed shortly afterwards.
4 people died instantly as a result of the collapse and 3 people suffered heavy injuries. Later, when the position was tested, no fault was found by experts.
When the inquiry team did a thorough check, however, they found that the roof was not sturdy enough to support pillars of heavy metal. They repaired the terminal after that tragedy, but it cost them $120 million. In 2008, the airport was reopened.
The St. Francis Dam – Blind Failure
To meet the rapid growing demands of Los Angeles, in the mid-20s, the St. Francis Dam was constructed. A US-Irish civil engineer, William Mulholland, was employed to construct the dam.
He developed the concept himself and built the dam alongside the LA Aqueduct. It’s well known that Mulholland designed the dam and even supervised the entire construction himself.
After 2 years, there were reports of leakage and cracks in the dam. Yet Mulholland disregarded all of them. Finally, 2 hours after his inspection, the dam burst in 1928 and killed over 450 people.
Again, disasters like these are completely annihilated with CAD software.
The Hyatt Regency Hotel – A Luxury Death
Two vertical walkways collapsed in the Hyatt Regency Hotel lobby on the 17th of July 1981 in Kansas City. The walkways came down, taking the lives of 114 people.
This building failure was declared the worst in America’s history in 1981. They found fairly serious flaws in the designs of both the walkways upon further study.
In addition, the architects who had originally worked on constructing and authorizing the walkways were accused of wrongdoing and gross negligence. They lost their engineering license.
The Pennsylvanian Johnstown Flood – Greed Caused Disaster
Johnstown was a very wealthy city in Pennsylvania in 1889 and was famous for its steel production. However, heavy rains and a breakdown induced by the negligence of a dam resulted in a disaster in the same year.
Johnstown was almost entirely wiped out by this disaster and a total of 2,209 casualties were recorded soon afterward. The South Fork Dam was later discovered to have been very poorly maintained.
And because of the immense pressure from Lake Conemaugh, the dam collapsed.
A major flood ensued, now referred to as ‘The Great Flood of 1889’. The property loss resulting from the collapsed dam was reported to be almost $17 million.
The Banqiao Dam, China – The Onetime Greatest
The Banqiao Dam in China collapsed in 1975 and was one of the worst engineering disasters of its time. This dam, now largely a forgotten legacy, was dubbed the ‘iron dam’ in 1975 and was well regarded as an unbreakable engineering marvel.
However, calamity struck, claiming the lives of about 230,000 people. In addition, following the tragedy, at least 11 million individuals were forced to flee. A staggering economic loss that cost the nation $1.6 billion also resulted from this tragedy.
Bad nature, as well as maintenance, unsafe construction, typhoon Nina, and the excessive construction of dams in that area can be attributed to the reasons for the toppling of the dam.
The Boston Molasses – Some Disasters Happen Without Signs
A huge tank of molasses collapsed in Boston at 529 Commercial Lane. They heard loud rumbling noises, similar to that of a machine gun at the time of the collapse, according to witnesses, and the ground constantly shook as if a train were passing by.
Also reported to be shooting out of the tank were the rivets. This Molasses wave was so massive that a train could be raised right off its tracks.
This tragedy also crushed the foundations of surrounding buildings. It claimed 21 lives and confirmed injuries to 150 individuals.
Engineering Disasters: Aeronautics
Hindenburg Disaster – The Disaster That Put an End to Passenger Airship Forever
Hindenburg was a German-built airship that suffered a terrible fate that led to the death of 36 passengers, including members of the crew. The incident was even captured on camera.
When attempting to dock itself in New Jersey, the airship caught fire and then crashed. According to American and German investigators who worked on the original report, the explanation for this was that the fire on the airship broke out because of the electrostatic discharge that caused the leaking hydrogen gas to ignite.
It’s also worth noting that the commercial use of passenger airships stopped after the Hindenburg crash.
The Skylab Disaster – Billions Can Be Lost In Seconds
On May 14th, 1973, Skylab was launched, weighing 75 metric tons. During the launch, it suffered considerable damage, and one of the more significant losses was the loss of its primary solar panels and the station’s micrometeoroid shield (sunshade).
The issue was further complicated when the solar panels were unresponsive. Something that stopped Skylab from being deployed and caused the orbital space station to incur an exorbitant cost of $3.6 billion.
The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster – A Historic Loss
The tragedy of the NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger occurred on January 28, 1986, when the shuttle broke apart exactly 73 seconds into orbit. 7 astronauts on board were killed in the accident.
The entire event can be viewed live on TV.
It was discovered during the investigation that the external fuel of the space shuttle had failed, releasing all the liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellants. The mixture of these chemicals caused the tank to rupture and combust.
Without the tank and the boosters, the shuttle orbiter couldn’t withstand the aerodynamic forces, resulting in the failure of other components and finally the death of all astronauts on-board.
The Air France Concorde Flight Crash – When the Mighty Airliner Crashes
On 25th July 2000, Air France’s Concorde flight crashed shortly after its take-off from Charles De Gaulle International Airport. It killed a total of 113 people.
The accident occurred because during take-off, metal strips on the runway ruptured the tires under the wings leading to several chain reactions that ended in a crash.
Following an investigation, it was found that, relative to other forms of aircraft, Concorde was more vulnerable to such disasters resulting from tire explosions. Many changes to the original design of airplanes were made after the crash.
This accident also resulted in the Supersonic Airliner being terminated, and Concorde also stopped operating three years later.
The Disaster of Space Shuttle Columbia – A Recent Failure
Another crew of 7 astronauts were killed on 1st February 2003 by the Space Shuttle Columbia. It disintegrated when the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere.
After further investigation, it was concluded that a small piece of foam insulation had fallen out of the shuttle during the launch of the space shuttle.
It struck the space shuttle’s left wing and destroyed the protective tiles responsible for shielding the shuttle from the enormous onslaught of heat during its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.
Because of the damage and failure of the tiles, the space shuttle re-entered the earth’s atmosphere only to be disintegrated.
The Apollo 13 Disaster – Prepare for the Worst
The Apollo 13 disaster is famous for leading to two famous Hollywood films. In 1970, this paralysed flight to the moon took place. Just two days after its launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on the 11th April 1970, an oxygen tank on Apollo 13 exploded.
This explosion caused the crew members considerable misery as they suffered from minimal power, lack of drinking water, cabin heat loss, and much more. They managed, however, to safely return to earth on April 17th.
The Apollo 1 Disaster in 1967 – Take Heed of the Warnings
When a fire broke out in the middle of a pre-flight test in 1967, three astronauts died, and the command module of the craft broke up due to the fire problems.
The incident occurred due to the negligence of crew members who struck off potential signs of an imminent disaster.
If the astronauts had heeded warning signs like the strange smells, the tragedy may have been avoided.
Engineering Disasters: Nuclear and Radiation Accidents
Chernobyl Disaster – Earth’s Open Sore
The Chernobyl Nuclear reactors failed in 1986, resulting in several fires and radioactive fallout.
As a result of this engineering tragedy, over 64 people died on the spot, and over 30,000 people suffered from premature deaths due to cancer.
Because of the faulty design of the reactor, this accident occurred and the people running it weren’t properly educated.
Again, in 1916, a tragedy struck and the central span of the bridge crumbled. It killed 13 staff this time. And there’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster.
Engineering Disasters: Industrial Disasters
The Gas Explosion in Cleveland, East Ohio – Poisonous Gases Claiming Innocent Lives
A gas explosion rocked Cleveland, Ohio, on the 20th of October 1944. Storage tanks made of liquefied natural gas spilled.
Back then, it was very normal to keep such storage tanks above the ground during that time, and that was precisely the case with the Cleveland gas explosion. What occurred next was a series of fires and explosions that took the lives of 130 individuals.
The Bhopal Disaster – The Disaster That Still Continues
The Bhopal tragedy occurred in 1984 when toxic gas was released at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India.
This tragedy resulted in the instant death of 2,259 people, and over 11,000 deaths occurred by the time the tragedy had ended.
Bhopal’s tragedy occurred when water polluted more than 42 tons of Methyl Isocyanate and triggered an exothermic reaction.
This disaster resulted in 558,125 injuries, of which, according to a government affidavit published in 2006. 3,900 people sustained injuries that led to permanent disabilities.
The lands of Bhopal are poisonous to humans and animals, even 34 years after this horrific tragedy took place.
There is no denying that the field of engineering has brought a lot of benefits to human lives, and produced some unmistakable milestones in human history.
However, due to carelessness, underestimations, incompetence and poor expertise, there have also been plenty of engineering failures that have caused unforgettable disasters.
The good news is that with the current improvements in computing technologies especially with leading software like SolidFace, CAD, a great game-changer in the industry.