5 technology disasters, horrors and tragedies
Wednesday, 31 October 2007 — by Wayne Smallman
Not all technology changes people’s lives for the better. There have been some notable technology disasters over the years, five of which will be retold here for you, fair reader. Sobering tech’ tales of woe, tragedy and horror to leave you sleeping a little less easily over the night of Halloween…
1. The magically moving Millennium Bridge
“Firmly positioned in the ‘A list’ of London attractions, the Millennium Bridge is a 330m steel bridge linking the City of London at St. Paul’s Cathedral with the Tate Modern Gallery at Bankside.”
Our story began in 1996 when an: “innovative and complex structure, featuring a 4 meter wide aluminium deck flanked by stainless steel balustrades, supported by cables to each side” was first proposed by Sir Anthony Caro, Ove Aru & Partners. Work began in February 1999 and was finally completed by April 2000.
Due to a combination of its striking appearance and its timeliness with the millennium, when the bridge was first opened to the public on 10 June 2000, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people crossed it.
“And then the problems began. Although the Millennium Bridge, like all bridges, was designed to cope with a degree of movement it soon became clear that things were going seriously awry as the deck swayed about like a drunken sailor. Elderly walkers clung on to the side of the bridge. People reported feeling seasick. The swaying bridge was looking like an expensive fairground ride.”
Oh dear. Oh dear, indeed.
“So the bridge was instantly renamed as ‘The Wobbly Bridge’, and after two days of random swaying, swinging and oscillating wildly, the bridge was closed down by embarrassed engineers.”
Making matters worse, again due to yet more timeliness although this time of the wrong kind, mostly due to the public feelings – mainly negative – towards the Millennium Dome down river, brows were raised as were questions in Parliament.
To make matters worse: “the engineers decided that the problem was apparently due to people walking the wrong way!” Of course, such an absurd assertion needed a suitably absurd title, such as ‘synchronous lateral excitation’, which was roundly derided at the time.
However, hidden within this gem of dismissive technobabble was a measure of truth. The wobble was: “due to the ‘chance correlation of footsteps when we walk in a crowd’.” which: “generated slight sideways movements of the bridge which made it more comfortable for people to walk in synchronization with the bridge movement.”
OK, let’s redress the original statement that the people crossing the Millennium Bridge were ‘walking the wrong way’. In actuality, people were walking in unison, which one could argue is the right way, relatively speaking, assuming you’re squad of soldiers on parade, that is.
In any case, this brush with tragedy had somewhat of a lukewarm and sadly happy ending:
“After nearly two years of testing, the alterations were deemed a success and the bridge finally reopened to the public in February 2002 – and the swaying was banished forever!”
Also, the engineers went on to produce volumes of data regarding the now legendary wobble, which to the best of my knowledge has made them uniquely expert on the issue of ‘synchronous lateral excitation’, a niche field in engineering technology, I’m sure.
Casting a further, deeper and darker shadow over this story is the fact that no one died. Not very fitting, I’m aggrieved to say.
2. The supersonic Tupolev TU-144 “Concordski” disaster of 1973
“A result of the cold war’s technology rivalry when the Soviet Union copied many things the west made including the Concorde and Space Shuttle. The Tupolev TU-144 was one of the Soviets least successful projects. Built as a competitor to the Anglo-French Concorde from modified plans stolen from the French it was the first supersonic commercial aircraft beating Concorde by two months.”
In a story leaden with political intrigue, the French did their utmost to wrong-foot the Russians at the Paris Airshow of 1973, including halving the time alloted to them for the demonstration flight of the Tupolev TU-144, otherwise known as “Concordski” over here in the west.
A name derived in no small part from the fact that the designs for the Tupolev were taken directly from French designs of the real Concorde, as well as the striking similarities between the two aeroplanes.
Matters worsened when the: “French sent up a Mirage III jet to photograph the TU-144 in flight, but did not tell the Russians.” And it is here that our story of death, destruction and rather a lot of finger-pointing begins.
Since the two aircraft were in such ridiculously close proximity to each other while in the air, problems were bound to arise. And as the Tupolev and the Mirage both realized that they were on a collision course, the crew of the Tupolev took evasive action, but: “the plane stalled and then when they tried to recover from the stall they overstressed the air frame causing the plane to break-up and crash,…”
It is speculated that the pilot of the Tupolev pushed the aircraft too hard, which is a reasonable assumption since the whole thing snapped in two. The resulting tangle of airframe, engines and fuselage was hurled into the ground in a searing fireball, obliterating the six people aboard the Tupolev and slaughtering eight people on the ground.
In total, sixty more people were injured and fifteen houses were utterly destroyed in the carnage and mayhem that ensued this deliciously flame-fueled aeronautical armageddon.
The civilian duties of the Tupolev TU-144 were forever left like those lives touched by those survivors and relatives of those injured and killed at the Paris Airshow of 1973 – shattered and broken into innumerable shards, never to be a reassembled.
The sad and miserable moral of this story is that one man’s technology is another man’s poison. Had the Russians stood more closely by one of their own proverbs “keep friends close and enemies closer”, they might have spotted the devil in the details they were stealing from the British and the French engineers…
3. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912
It is oft claimed that the Titanic was sunk by a fateful collision with an iceberg, drifting forth from the waters of Labrador, Canada. However, the truth may be much closer to that of a man-made disaster, one of poor engineering practices and old technology.
There’s little doubt that the Titanic did in fact collide with an iceberg. But the question remains whether the iceberg itself was enough to sink the Titanic, or if there were other contributing factors to the sinking of 1912:
“The duty officer ordered the ship hard to port and the engines reversed. In about 40 seconds, as the Titanic was beginning to respond to the change in course, it collided with an iceberg estimated to have a gross weight of 150,000-300,000 tons.”
A not inconsiderable heft of ice, by any standards.
“The iceberg struck the Titanic near the bow on the starboard (right) side about 4 m above the keel. During the next 10 seconds, the iceberg raked the starboard side of the ship’s hull for about 100 meters, damaging the hull plates and popping rivets, thus opening the first six of the 16 watertight compartments formed by the transverse bulkheads.”
I find it difficult to imagine a gouge through steel and iron so long being made by one of the nine known states of water ice. But serrate and almost disembowel the iceberg did, cleaving the Titanic open like a fatally wounded animal.
But still the question of the cause of the sinking remained. A question put to test more recently by: “Phil Leighly, a professor emeritus of metallurgical engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla, said in 1985, ‘When steel breaks, you expect a groaning, not a cracking sound – unless the steel is brittle.'”
The shrieking of weakened metal is the sound of failure in the minds of the engineers and of impending but largely unknown death to most of the passengers aboard the Titanic on that miserable and infamous night.
And the failing yet hidden hand of men is apparent and present once more. Casting its thin-fingered shadow across the lives of the 1,500 souls who perished in those black, freezing waters off the coast of Newfoundland.
“During an expedition to the wreckage in 1996, researchers brought back steel from the hull of the Titanic for metallurgical analysis. Later analyses revealed … the presence of relatively high amounts of phosphorous, oxygen, and sulfur – a combination which has the tendency to embrittle the steel at low temperatures.”
Much like the stricken vessel of 1912, the woe further deepened and sank further as more discovers emerged from the ruined remains of the ship of death:
“When the Titanic samples were also examined with a scanning electron microscope, the grain structure of the steel was found to be very large; this coarse structure made it easier for cracks to propagate. Rivet holes were cold-punched, a method no longer allowed (they must now be drilled), nor were they reamed to remove microcracks.”
With thousands of lives ruined and reputations left in tatters during the ensuing years after the disaster, the Titanic will remain forever the lingering and enigmatic ghost ship of folklore, laying there on the sea bed off the coast of Newfoundland at a depth of almost 4 kilometers. Serving as a pitiful milestone along the sorry path of human technological arrogance and conceit.
Will there be more colossal failures in the world of technology and human endeavor to rival the Titanic? One can but hope.
4. Dell and their costly computer conflagration
In the computer industry, reputations hang in the balance, often made and broken by one small and isolated event, brought to the attention of the world by a baying media, larger than the problem itself. And then there are times when the event is big enough in its own right that the media just can’t hype things enough!
For example, take the incident in 2005 when Dell and their line of laptops featured faulty batteries, which had the unfortunate yet delightful habit of spontaneous combustion:
“The world’s largest manufacturer of personal computers, Dell, is to recall 4.1 million of its notebook computer batteries because of a fire risk.”
Sadly, due to supply chain and logistics issues: “most batteries are in computers sold in the US but more than 1 million are thought to be elsewhere”, so the true scope of potential for death and disaster was somewhat diminished.
“Alex Gurzen, the vice-president of Dell’s product group, told the BBC the firm wanted to ‘put customer safety first despite this being a small handful of incidents’.”
Of course he would say that, wouldn’t he? Disappointing for me was the fact that this exploding variety of batteries wasn’t really Dell’s fault.
“The Sony lithium-ion batteries were placed in laptops shipped between April 2004 and July 2006. They were included in some models of Dell’s Latitude, Inspiron, XPS and Precision mobile workstation notebooks.”
Still, solace can be taken from the fact that the majority of the blame was aimed at Dell, largely fueled by the media, of course.
“‘In rare cases, a short-circuit could cause the battery to overheat, causing a risk of smoke and or fire,’ said Dell spokesman Ira Williams.”
Reports vary, but it is understood that dozens of Dell laptops took it upon themselves to belch forth flames and clouds of smoke as their dying, melting carcasses smoldered on desks and tables, spreading terror amongst office workers around the world.
Intriguingly, the connection with Sony continues, though Dell is to play no further part. If you were to follow the line forward, you would see other technological failures tracing their way towards a less potent Sony, compared to how they were in the latter part of the twentieth century.
The seeds of this continuing recent trend towards technological and managerial decline might even be traced back to 1975.
5. Sony’s Betamax versus JVC’s VHS
The best man doesn’t always win. Nor does the best format, either. And so it goes that Sony’s Betamax should lose out to JVC’s ‘inferior’ VHS video format:
“Sony’s Betamax video standard was introduced in 1975, followed a year later by JVC’s VHS. For around a decade the two standards battled for dominance, with VHS eventually emerging as the winner.”
This isn’t so much a disaster of technology, but more a triumph of powerful marketing in the face of what was perceived to be by some as better technology.
“The victory was not due to any technical superiority (Betamax is arguably a better format), but to several factors. Exactly how and why VHS won the war has been the subject of intense debate. The commonly-held belief is that the technically superior Betamax was beaten by VHS through slick marketing. In fact the truth is more complex and there were a number of reasons for the outcome.”
As is nearly always the case in such situations, the complexities are circuitous and manifold. In a suitably ironic twist, the agent of commercial obsolescence for Sony’s Betamax format would be expensive production costs and corporate neglect – two bedfellows of almost certain failure:
“It is certainly true that VHS machines were initially much simpler and cheaper to manufacture,… It has also been reported that Sony inadvertently gave its competitors a helping hand by revealing key aspects of Betamax technology which were then incorporated into VHS.”
What folly. And if matters weren’t bad enough, Sony’s suitably self-destructive, capricious thinking and disastrous decision making was to deal the Betamax format a final blow:
“For consumers, the most immediately obvious difference between the two formats was the recording length. Standard Betamax tapes lasted 60 minutes – not long enough to record a movie. Conversely, the 3-hour VHS tapes were perfect for recording television programmes and movies.”
If ever there was a poster child for business ineptitude and technological head-in-sand thinking, Sony has been helpful enough to put themselves forward as a formidable candidate.
Their one and only strength was the quality of the video, which was to serve them well in the video production industry for years to come, but not soon enough to avoid the living death of living room oblivion they were to be an unwilling participant in.
And so ends this weary and care-worn saga of lamentable technology disasters, horrors and tragedies.