Mistakes Were Made

Not every mistake is, in hindsight, as bad as the one represented by that ad. Asbestos use began long before the direct link to cancer was known, so it’s hard to blame the people who introduced it to building use. (It’s rather easier to blame the people who resisted its removal after the link was known, but that’s a different story.)

Looking at that ad got me thinking about similar structures-adjacent failures of technology. And the asbestos story is a failure of technology: asbestos was used because it was an improvement in technology – a better insulator, more resistant to wear, fire-resistant at a lighter weight – and that was true in a narrow sense. The broader sense, which is still an evaluation of it as a technology, is that those improvements were gained at the cost of a measurable increase in cancer rates.

Technology failures tend to happen most often when the technology is changing rapidly. As a result the nineteenth century is the best place to look for unexpected collapses. From bouncy suspension bridges to improperly-braced building frames, there are plenty fo examples to choose. Fire-related failures come in two categories: (a) the kind of horrific building fire that has existed as long as people have built in wood and (b) fires that showed failures of “fire-proof construction.” The Triangle fire, for example, took place in a building that met the standards of the era for fire protection.

There are more subtle failures in design, such as the inability of pre-FEM frame analysis to give accurate results for lateral drift, but if they’re so esoteric that they take ten minutes to explain to non-engineers, then they’re not the same level of tragedy as the others I’ve mentioned. The easy-to-explain failures in analysis – like the fact that it took more than sixty years for curtain walls to get engineered expansion joints after skeleton frames were first used – tend to be simple. I guess that sentence is a tautology, but that’s a good reminder, again, that engineering isn’t science.

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