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A Century of Spectacular Failure
By Leander Kahney
December 29, 1999
As the 20th century draws to a close, every news organization in the world is publishing its lists of the greatest this and the top thats during the past 100 years.
Well, fine. Everybody loves a winner, and everybody loves a list, so it makes sense. But for every "best of," there needs to be a "worst of." After all, the road to success is strewn with the miserable remains of those who failed.
Since technology is our game, Wired News asked the people behind the Ig Nobel awards to draw up a list of the century's most conspicuous technological failures.
As selected by the Ig Nobel board of governors, which every year recognizes research "that cannot or should not be reproduced," our list of 20 techno screwups celebrates 100 years of stupidity, ignorance, pig headedness, and plain bad luck.
The list is far from comprehensive. It's impossible to give every plane crash, collapsed bridge, missing space probe, or crackpot idea its due.
But with an eye toward style and symbolic value, the list illustrates what can go wrong when technology crosses paths with human arrogance and folly.
"These are all screwups worth looking at and pondering and maybe worth learning from," said Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, which awards the Ig Nobels. "But above all, they're good stories."
So, let's dither no longer. In chronological order, here's to the losers:
The N-ray (1903): At a time of great upheaval in the physical sciences, French physicist Rene Prosper Blondlot announces the discovery of "N-rays," a form of radiation he calls even more important than X-rays, discovered just a few years earlier.
The announcement triggers a barrage of scientific research that very quickly convinces everyone -- Monsieur Blondlot being the notable exception -- that N-rays do not exist. To this day, Blondlot remains a poster boy for double-checking your work.
The Titanic (1912): On 14 April, the RMS Titanic, described by its builders as practically unsinkable, sinks after hitting an iceberg.
World War I (1914-18): During these four bloody years, nearly all the world's technological innovation is poured into the battlefields of Europe's Western Front.
Both the Allies and the Central Powers expect their superior technology to decide things quickly. What results is four years of deadlocked trench warfare, and the introduction of a new generation of death-dealing weapons, among them the airplane, the tank, the flamethrower, and poison gas.
The Hindenburg (1937): Arriving in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on 6 May after a transatlantic crossing, the 804-foot-long, hydrogen-filled zeppelin explodes into flames as it docks. Thirty-five people die.
"Wrong Way" Corrigan (1938): On 17 July, pioneer aviator Douglas Corrigan takes off from an airfield in Brooklyn, New York, headed for California. He lands in Ireland.
Tacoma Narrows Bridge (1940): The bridge, spanning the Narrows on Washington's Puget Sound, begins twisting wildly in high winds before collapsing into the waters below. The designers built their bridge at the same resonant frequency as the winds whistling through the Narrows, which causes it to vibrate like a tuning fork and fail.
Antibiotics (1940): Hardly a failure, but there is a downside to these wonder drugs. The development of powerful antibiotics saves millions of lives, to be sure. But by the end of the century, careless overuse allows many microbes to build up a resistance to these drugs, endangering millions of other lives.
The de Havilland Comet (1952): Twenty-one of these commercial airliners are built. Seven crash because of design flaws that lead to metal fatigue. Needless to say, they don't remain in service very long.
The Great Leap Forward (1958-62): Red China's agrarian-technological revolution is a dismal failure. Food production plummets, leading to widespread famine. The government refuses to accept that wrong-headed farming practices developed in the Soviet Union are to blame. In the four years it takes for China to concede defeat, anywhere from 30 million to 50 million people die.
Malpasset Dam (1959): This dam in the Reyran Valley on the French Riviera cracks and bursts in early December. Its foundation, seated next to a seam of clay that the designers ignore, shifts, causing the crack. More than 420 people die.
Mariner 1 (1962): The first US spacecraft dispatched to Venus drifts badly off course because of an error in its guidance system. The error is a small one -- a wrong punctuation character in a single line of code -- but the course deviation is large. Mariner 1 ends up in the Atlantic Ocean.
Hancock Tower (1970s): The brand new, 60-story highrise in Boston -- one of the first skyscrapers to be clad in mirrored glass -- begins shedding its 500-pound window panes, one by one.
This situation is caused by the movement of the building; architects have overlooked the fact that similar problems occur in much smaller structures.
Sheets of plywood are put up in place of the missing windows, and for years surrounding streets are covered with tunnels to protect pedestrians from falling glass. The Hancock's instability also causes nearby utility lines and foundations to crack, and induces nausea in occupants when heavy winds blow.
Korean Air Lines disaster (1983): On 1 September, a Soviet fighter plane shoots down a Korean Air Lines passenger jet that has strayed off course into Russian airspace near Sakhalin Island. All 269 people aboard are killed.
Bhopal (1984): On 3 December, the Union Carbide chemical plant at Bhopal, India, begins leaking toxic gas. More than 6,000 people die.
Challenger (1986): On 28 January, the space shuttle explodes shortly after lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing all aboard. The failure of a sealing ring is blamed for the tragedy.
Cold weather made the sealant material brittle, causing it to crack prior to Challenger's launch.
Chernobyl (1986): In April, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the then Soviet Union suffers a partial meltdown due to design deficiencies and sloppy maintenance.
More than 30 people die in the immediate aftermath, but the fallout is much greater. Thousands have since developed fatal cancers and severe radiation sickness. The vast expanse of land, water, and air surrounding the plant is still laced with lethal levels of radioactive contaminants.
Another shoot-down (1988): On 3 July, the USS Vincennes mistakes an Iran Air passenger jet for an enemy aircraft and shoots it down with a missile. All 290 people on board are killed.
Cold fusion (1989): Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, chemists at the University of Utah, announce the discovery of "cold fusion" -- a simple, inexpensive way to produce nuclear fusion.
Using equipment small enough to fit on a tabletop, the breakthrough process promises a future of inexpensive energy production.
The announcement triggers a barrage of scientific research and billions of dollars in financing. With the research done and the money spent, nearly everyone -- except for Fleischmann and Pons -- concludes that cold fusion isn't possible.
Expensive finger slip (1994): Juan Pablo Davila, working for the Chilean government-owned Codelco Company, accidentally types "buy" when he means to type "sell" while trading commodities on his computer.
After realizing his mistake, Davila tries to rectify it with a frenzy of buying and selling, ultimately losing approximately 0.5 percent of the country's gross national product.
His name has since entered the language: "Davilar," meaning "to screw up royally."
Y2K bug (2000): Maybe, and maybe not.
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