Top Twenty Technological Screw-ups of the 20th Century
By Marc Abraham
Selected by the Ig Nobel Board of Governors
Commissioned by Wired News and the Annals of Improbable Research
Screw-up #4: Successful demonstration of the flammability of gaseous hydrogen.
Screw-up #6: A few minutes after the first piece of concrete fell, this 600 foot section broke out of the suspension span, turning upside down as it crashed in Puget Sound. Note how the floor assembly and the solid girders have been twisted and warped. The square object in mid air (near the centre of the photograph) is a 25 foot (7.6m) section of concrete pavement. Notice the car in the top right corner.
In a century crammed to bursting with screw-ups, a century that gave birth to Murphy's Law ("If anything can go wrong, it will."), it is difficult to choose a mere twenty outstanding screw-ups. Inevitably and unfairly, several hundred thousand worthy achievements were left out. We chose for style and symbolic value, as well as for substance or lack thereof. We kept in mind that technology is a combination of things, techniques, and the people who devise, make, and use them.
The people mentioned here had reasons - in many cases very good reasons - for doing what they did. (In at least one case, that of Corrigan, some contend that the entire screw-up was cleverly planned as such.) These screw-ups can serve as fodder for thought, argument, or pure, unabashed wonder.
- In 1903, physicist Rene Prosper Blondlot of the University of Nancy, France, announced a great scientific discovery: a new kind of radiation called "N-rays." X-rays had been discovered just a few years earlier, causing worldwide excitement, and Blondlot's N-ray announcement caused a sensation. After seeing a demonstration of Blondlot's N-ray detector, American physicist R.W. Wood secretly removed the guts from the machine and then asked Blondlot to repeat the demo. Blondlot, using the broken machine, insisted that he was still seeing N-rays. Almost everyone except Blondlot then concluded that N-rays do not exist. This became the science community's great example of why extraordinary claims ought to be tested before people accept them as valid.
- On April 14, 1912, the ocean liner Titanic, described by its manufacturers as unsinkable, sank on her maiden voyage.
- During World War I, nearly all the world's technological innovation was poured into the battlefields of Europe's Western Front. Both sides expected their technology would quickly break the impasse. Instead, it produced three years of deadlocked trench, barbed wire, rifle, grenade, machine gun, artillery, gas, tank, and aeroplane warfare, and the deaths of millions of people.
- On May 6, 1937, the hydrogen-filled dirigible Hindenburg, arriving in Lakehurst, New Jersey, after a transatlantic flight, caught fire and disintegrated.
- On July 17, 1938, pioneer aviator Douglas (ever after to be called"Wrong Way") Corrigan, took off for California from an air field in Brooklyn, New York. He landed in Ireland.
- On November 7,1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, in Washington state, twisted wildly and collapsed. The twisting was caused by wind forces the designers had ignored.
- In the early and middle parts of the century, powerful new antibiotic drugs were developed, saving countless millions of lives. By century's end, careless over-use of these drugs fueled many microbes to evolve resistance to them, thus endangering countless millions of lives .
- In 1952, the de Havilland Comet, a commercial jet aircraft, made its debut. Twenty-one of this first model were built. Seven of them crashed due to a kind of metal fatigue that the designers had not considered.
- On December 5, 1959, the Malpasset Dam in the Reyran Valley on the French Riviera cracked and burst. Its foundation, which was seated next to a seam of clay the designers had ignored, had shifted, causing the crack. More than 420 people died.
- During the years 1958-62 a Chinese government-mandated technological revolution called "The Great Leap Forward" caused food production to plummet, which led to massive famine. Under orders, people over- and mis-used techniques that were copied from the Soviet Union (soil was plowed too deeply, seeds planted too densely, irrigation projects engineered badly if at all, etc.) Bureaucracy on all levels exacerbated the problem by decreeing that there was no problem. The death toll from the famine is estimated at 30-50 million people.
- In 1962, Mariner 1, the first US spacecraft sent to explore the planet Venus, went off-course shortly after launch because of an error in its guidance computer program. The error was small: a wrong punctuation character in one line of code. The result was large: instead of going to Venus, Mariner 1 went into the Atlantic Ocean.
- In the early 1970s, the new, 60-story Hancock Tower in Boston, one of the first tall buildings clad entirely with large mirrored glass panels, began shedding its 500-pound windows, one by one. The window material had been used in much smaller buildings, where it caused similar problems; the Hancock designers overlooked this fact. Sheets of plywood - more than an acre of them - were put up in place of the missing windows, and for years the streets in the neighborhood were covered with tunnels to protect pedestrians from the falling glass. The building also caused neighboring utility lines and foundations to crack, and induced nausea in its occupants when heavy winds blew.
- On September 1, 1983, a Soviet Su-15 jet fighter mistakenly shot down a Korean Air civilian airliner near Sakhalin Island, USSR, killing 269 people.
- On December 3, 1984, the Union Carbide chemical plant at Bhopal, India leaked toxic gas, killing more than 6000 people and injuring and/or debilitating many more.
- On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff because a sealing ring failed. The sealant material was known to be brittle in the cold, and the rocket had spent many hours sitting in cold weather prior to launch.
- In April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Russia suffered a partial meltdown due to design deficiencies and sloppy maintenance. More than thirty people were killed in the short term, thousands more suffered severe illness and/or impairment, and a vast expanse of land, water and air was laced with radioactive contaminants.
- On July 3, 1988, the US naval vessel Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iran Air civilian airliner, killing 290 people.
- In 1989, Martin Fleishmann and Stanley Pons, chemists at the University of Utah, announced their discovery of "Cold Fusion," a simple, inexpensive way to produce nuclear fusion. The method promised a future in which energy would be cheap and plentiful. The announcement triggered wild financial speculation and frenzied, unsuccessful attempts worldwide to demonstrate cold fusion. Later, it appeared that Fleischmann and Pons had based their claim on poorly documented, sloppy experiments, and were refusing to discuss the details. The insistent, extraordinary claim, together with the lack of information that would allow others to test it, made Fleischmann and Pons-and their idea-pariahs to much of the science community.
- Juan Pablo Davila worked for the Chilean government-owned Codelco Company. In 1994, while trading commodities via computer, Davila accidently typed "buy" when he meant to type "sell." After realizing his mistake, he went into a frenzy of buying and selling, ultimately losing approximately .5% of the country's gross national product. His name thereupon became a verb, "davilar," meaning "to screw up royally."
- And finally, comes the Y2K computer bug, the nature of which is all too well known to turn-of-the-century readers.
Marc Abraham is the editor of the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) and host of the long-standing annual Ig Nobel Prizes, awarded each fall in a special ceremony at Harvard University in recognition of "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced." (See APS News, December 1999, for last year's Ig Nobel Prize recipients.)