Infamous Engineering Structures
Last week my bike chain broke midway along my commute; 45 minutes from the nearest station. In an unbelievable twist of fate, however, it turned out that the man fishing next to where I skidded to a halt happened to be a mechanic, with the tools to get me far enough to go and shout at Halfords for selling me this dam BSO. It seems apt this week, therefore, to discuss some engineering structures that live in infamy; noteworthy in their failure rather than their success.
Ronan Point (1968)
Younger engineers may not know Ronan Point by name, I certainly didn’t. But anyone who’s ever applied a UDL of 34kN/m2 (5psi) in a disproportionate collapse calculation has felt its effects. Ms Ivy Hodge sparked the gas explosion making her morning tea on the stove; taking out the load bearing wall of her apartment and, in turn, the corner of the whole tower of flats. As well as shaking confidence in Large Panel Systems (a modular/prefabricated concrete construction), the back calculated force of the blast (34kN/m2) became canon for all future checks. Apparently she took the offending stove to her new address; if it still survives today, I motion it be displayed as a piece of engineering history.
First Quebec Bridge (1907)
When I was in Canada I was told about the iron rings given to Graduate Engineers; that they were made from the unused steel of the collapsed Quebec Bridge as a reminder of the responsibility behind the profession. In writing this article, however, I’ve discovered that this is a myth, much to my disappointment. The story of the Quebec bridge failure is all too common, preliminary design calculations unchecked, the bridge design later changed and the calculations not revisited, inexperienced site engineer… the bridge failed during construction under it’s own dead-load. Ominously the second attempt in 1916 met with similar fate as the hoisting devices failed and the central span fell into the river; to this day, its still there.
Brimscombe Lane Development (2011)
Although definitely not the most iconic structure; the failure of a trail pit for the housing development brought the first corporate manslaughter charge for construction in the UK. Left to work alone in an unshored 3.5m deep trench, geologist Alexander Wright died when the pit collapsed. Cotsword Geotechnical Holdings was fined £385,000, ultimately liquidating the company, with the director Peter Eaton avoiding charges only due to ill health.
World Trade Centre (2001)
Although by no means the first structure to be the focus of a terrorist attack (indeed, it had already been the subject of a bombing in 1993), the WTC makes the list of infamous structures for two counts. Firstly because it cemented terrorism as a design case in every engineer’s mind and secondly (perhaps more interestingly), because the failure mechanism is still up for debate. Personally I think such things are chaotic; structures are complex and modelling behaviour riddled with assumptions- yet, however, conspiracy theories abound.
Tacoma Narrows Bridge (1940)
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Barney Elliott’s video. Enough times, at least, to float a conspiracy theory that it was the work of Physics teachers desperate for a good example of resonance. And although the only fatality was a dog (named Tubby); that no discussion of dynamics is without an introductory picture of this bridge makes it indubitably one of the most famous bridge collapse in the world.