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Infamous Engineering Structures

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)

Ronan Point

Ronan Point

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)

The First Quebec Bridge

The First Quebec Bridge

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)

WTC Collapse

World Trade Centre

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.

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  1. VoxPop

    Hi Tom: I loved these examples of how difficult it is to do engineering in the real world. As a physicist, i have to keep reminding people that it is engineers that have created the modern world, not scientists. I share your deep concerns about over-simplifying the complexities of reality, especially with mathematics. Incidentally, how much algebra do you use in your professional life?
    Best wishes,
    Herb Spencer

    • Herb,
      I’m glad you find the post interesting- although without physics it’d be hard for engineers to have built a world that still stands up!
      I use quite a bit of algebra; but then I work in a highly technical field of engineering- whilst a lot of designers can get away with a more formulaic approach (i.e. input -> equation -> output); although, of course, all that means is that someone has reduced the algebra already.

      • VoxPop

        Hi Tom:
        Tell me what parts of physics first come to mind that you think are the basis of engineering.
        I might surprise you with my reaction.
        Best wishes, Herb

        • Well, it’s got to be Statics; pretty much all of Civil Engineering begins with Newton’s Laws of Motion and Euler Beam Theory.

          • Hmm?? I don’t even think of statics as part of physics. i suppose it is but it’s so obvious that it is little more than forces have to balance otherwise things move.
            Most physicists would say physics starts with Newton’s laws which are obsessed with dynamics; something that engineers usually want to avoid (‘motion is a bitch’).
            I still claim that engineering is an empirical art that accumulates “rules of thumb” that seem to have worked well over the years.
            The Romans did OK without physics & their only math seems to be geometry (ever
            tried to do big multiplies or long division with Roman Numerals?).
            Cheers, Herb

          • Oh yes; there’s a joke: “Physics is what should happen- Engineering is what does.”


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