The 3 Biggest failures in modern engineering history

(and what we can learn from them)


Engineering has proved to be vital in developing the modern world. Almost everything we use on a daily basis has been designed, tested, and scrutinized by multiple hard working engineers.

Unfortunately, like in any profession, mistakes are made. Unlike the weatherperson for your local news station, engineers cannot make mistakes. For many projects designed by engineers, decisions need to be on point, and one small mathematical miscalculation can be very costly.

Below, we’ve listed the 3 biggest failures in modern engineering history, and what we can learn from them.

1. The Titanic

The Titanic’s famous failure has had no shortage of publicity over the years. James Cameron’s feature film based on the disaster, Titanic, was the highest grossing film of all time for over a decade. While Leonardo DiCaprio’s breakthrough movie may have been a success, the actual Titanic was likely the biggest engineering failure of all time.

The engineers of the Titanic designed the ship with 16 compartments meant to make the ship “unsinkable”. The idea was that the 16 compartments were to be watertight, meaning if one or two compartments were compromised by flooding, the rest would remain dry and intact. The engineers were so confident in this 16 compartment design that they deemed the ship to be “unsinkable”.

The Titanic struck an iceberg in April of 1912 and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean with thousands of people on board. The sixteen compartment design had not been built properly, and water was able to leak through the ceilings and penetrate all 16 “impenetrable” compartments after the impact of the iceberg caused flooding. It was also later discovered that the ship was built with low quality iron, which the engineers had not accounted for.

These two fatal engineering flaws both took place due to a lack of communication between those who designed the boat and those working construction. This miscommunication led to the loss of countless lives, making the Titanic’s sinking one of the worst engineering disasters in history.
2. The Hindenburg Disaster

In Europe, during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, many saw airships as the future of commercial air travel. The popularity of the blimp-like passenger aircraft was steadily on the rise. This all changed on May 6th, 1937 when the LZ 129 Hindenburg Airship caught fire over a Naval Air Station in New Jersey.

It is speculated that there was a small hydrogen leak in the airship, which would not have been a major issue had there not been an unforeseen static discharge coming off of the airship itself. This oversight led to the hydrogen catching fire, which eventually led to the entire airship being engulfed in flames as the crew was attempting to dock.

This disaster destroyed the public’s confidence in airships, leading to a complete abandonment of the aircraft within the next decade. All of this took place because the engineers who designed this aircraft had not considered the possible consequences of a small hydrogen leak, and did not prepare the craft for such complications. One small oversight led to the abandonment of an entire form of air travel.
3. The Hyatt Regency Hotel

The Hyatt Regency Hotel, located in Kansas City Missouri, opened on July 1st, 1980, after an expedited construction process. The 40 story hotel was well known for its lobby, which included multiple elevated walkways suspended from the ceiling.

About a year after the hotel completed construction, during a party held in the its architecturally celebrated lobby, two suspended walkways, attached to each other, collapsed. two 64,000 pound walkways fell to the floor and many lives were lost due to the collapse.

At the time, this was the deadliest structural failure in the history of the United States.

The engineers who designed the original suspended walkways were given a request for a small change from the construction company working on the project. Eager to finish the project, the engineers approved of the seemingly small structural change without a thorough review of the implications. The small suspension change resulted in an eventual collapse of the walkways. The engineers were found guilty of negligence, and lost their engineering license in Missouri.

The engineers’ hastiness in completing the hotel combined with the poor communication between engineers and construction leaders led to this tragic collapse.
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All three of these failures show just how valuable high leveling engineering is and the need for ongoing evaluation and monitoring through the entire lifecycle of a project. Not only have we learned a great deal from these failures, advancements in technology are proving invaluable in seeing the unforeseen before they happen.

Like many engineering and architectural firms a cross the country, we are actively using Building Information (BIM) software at the start of design to see and mitigate possible system conflicts and structural deficiencies before construction begins.

Our team is also utilizing laser scanning to document existing conditions so no detail is lost. When it comes right down to it, communication and collaboration between all levels of production form engineers to architect to construction is a must.


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