Design engineering, learning from past failures

The world of design engineering has made great strides over the last 100 years and today the vast majority of testing and retesting is done via computer aided design systems. However, it would be wrong to suggest that design engineering today is an exact science because many engineers still appreciate and learn from problems encountered many years ago. So what were the main engineering disasters which helped to mould the industry that we see today?

The Titanic

The Titanic

The Titanic is one of the most infamous engineering “failures” claiming 1500 lives when the ship sank on its maiden voyage. Deemed to be “unsinkable” those maiden voyage passengers had no idea of the tragedy that awaited them – the Titanic is still talked about to this day. There are many theories as to why the Titanic sunk so quickly and why this “unsinkable” ship effectively failed.

There may have been a number of contributing factors but the main problem was with the 16 watertight compartments used to keep the ship afloat. Over the years it has become apparent that because these compartments were not individually sealed, water began to spill from one compartment to another. When designed, the idea was that each compartment would be isolated from the others in the event of one or more compartments failing, allowing the ship to stay afloat. The rush of water when the ship hit an iceberg ran right through the 16 compartments destabilising and ultimately sinking the Titanic.

Many lessons have been learned from the sinking of the Titanic although unfortunately it took the lives of 1500 passengers and crew to highlight the main issues.

The Hindenburg disaster


The German passenger airship known as the LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and crashed in 1937 while attempting to dock in New Jersey. Hailed as a major breakthrough in air travel the Hindenburg disaster was a major setback for the airship industry. Interestingly, the industry is starting to make a comeback in the 21st century although we can all rest assured that problems of years gone by have been digested and acted upon.

While it took researchers decades to come to the conclusion that it was an electrostatic discharge which ignited leaking hydrogen there is much to marvel at with regards to the initial design. The ability to create an airship which used highly flammable hydrogen gas was a major breakthrough in itself. Unfortunately, the electrostatic discharge was not accounted for and ultimately led to the downfall of the airship and the industry. The Hindenburg disaster was caught on video and the speed at which the airship caught fire is frightening. Lessons have been learned, the industry was effectively dead for many years, but we shall see whether the general public will ever fully trust this type of air travel again.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse

There are a whole host of bridge disasters from years gone by which have assisted with the creation of modern day bridge designs. One such disaster is the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge back in 1940 in the same year in which it became operational. When built, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was the third longest suspension bridge in the world and caught headlines across the globe. There were many years of design and building which went into the opening in 1940 although unfortunately the life of the bridge was brief to say the least.

Even during the building process it became evident that the bridge was susceptible to vertical movement in windy conditions. This was taken into account to a certain extent but a “perfect storm” in 1940 led to what is commonly known as an aeroelastic flutter. This “flutter” decimated the structure of the bridge which then collapsed even though the winds were reported to be less than 40 mph at the time. Many design engineers believe that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse still plays an integral part in the bridge design sector of today. Many lessons were learned, many changes were made and the bridges we have today offer a balance between a rigid structure and one able to accommodate the elements.


The engineering world prides itself on its ability to learn from past events although unfortunately many of these have been labelled as disasters. The sinking of the Titanic, the decimation of the Hindenburg airship and the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge all presented opportunities to learn from past mistakes. Thankfully many of the errors of years gone by have helped to create safer and stronger structures and expand the information pool from which many design engineers take their inspiration.

Related Posts