Top Technological Screw-Ups Of the 20th Century
Selected by the Ig
Nobel Board of Governors
Commissioned by Wired
News and the Annals of
by Marc Abrahams
In a century crammed to bursting with screw-ups, a century that gave birth to Murphy's Law ("whatever can go wrong, will go wrong"), it is difficult to choose a mere twenty outstanding screw-ups. Inevitably and unfairly, several hundred thousand worthy achievements were left out. We chose for style and symbolic value, as well as for substance or lack thereof. We kept in mind that technology is a combination of things, techniques, and the people who devise, make, and use them.
The people mentioned here had reasons -- in many cases very good reasons -- for doing what they did. (In at least one case, that of Corrigan, some contend that the entire screw-up was cleverly planned as such.) These screw-ups can serve as fodder for thought, argument, or pure, unabashed wonder.
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In 1903, physicist Rene Prosper
Blondlot of the University of Nancy, France, announced a great scientific
discovery: a new kind of radiation called "N-rays." X-rays had been discovered
just a few years earlier, causing worldwide excitement, and Blondlot's
N-ray announcement caused a sensation. After seeing a demonstration
of Blondlot's N-ray detector, American physicist R.W. Wood secretly
removed the guts from the machine and then asked Blondlot to repeat the
demo. Blondlot, using the broken machine, insisted that he was still seeing
N-rays. Almost everyone except Blondlot then concluded that
N-rays do not exist. This became the science community's great example
of why extraordinary claims ought to be tested before people accept them
On April 14, 1912, the ocean liner
Titanic, described by its manufacturers as unsinkable, sank on her maiden
During World War I, nearly all the world's technological innovation was poured into the battlefields of Europe's Western Front. Both sides expected their technology would quickly break the impasse. Instead, it produced three years of deadlocked trench, barbed wire, rifle, grenade, machine gun, artillery, gas, tank, and aeroplane warfare, and the deaths of millions of people.
On May 6, 1937, the hydrogen-filled
dirigible Hindenberg, arriving in Lakehurst, New Jersey, after a transatlantic
flight, caught fire and disintegrated.
On July 17, 1938, pioneer aviator
Douglas (ever after to be called"Wrong Way") Corrigan, took off for California
from an air field in Brooklyn, New York. He landed in Ireland.
On November 7,1940, the Tacoma Narrows
Bridge, in Washington state, twisted wildly and collapsed. The twisting
was caused by wind forces the designers had ignored.
In the early and middle parts of the century,
powerful new antibiotic drugs were developed, saving countless millions
of lives. By century's end, careless over-use of these drugs fueled many
microbes to evolve resistance to the them, thus endangering countless
millions of lives .
In 1952, the de Havilland Comet ,
a commercial jet aircraft, made its debut. Twenty-one of this first model
were built. Seven of them crashed due to a kind of metal fatigue that the
designers had not considered.
On December 5, 1959, the Malpasset
Dam in the Reyran Valley on the French Riviera cracked and burst.
Its foundation, which was seated next to a seam of clay the designers had
ignored, had shifted, causing the crack. More than 420 people died.
During the years 1958-62 a Chinese
government-mandated technological revolution called "The Great Leap Forward"
caused food production to plummet, which led to massive famine. Under
orders, people over- and mis-used techniques that were copied from the
Soviet Union (soil was plowed too deeply, seeds planted too densely, irrigation
projects engineered badly if at all, etc.) Bureaucracy on all levels exacerbated
the problem by decreeing that there was no problem. The death toll from
the famine is estimated at 30-50 million people.
In 1962, Mariner 1, the first U.S.
spacecraft sent to explore the planet Venus, went off-course shortly after
launch because of an error in its guidance computer program. The error
was small: a wrong punctuation character in one line of code. The result
was large: instead of going to Venus, Mariner 1 went into the Atlantic
In the early 1970s, the new, 60-story
Hancock Tower in Boston, one of the first tall buildings clad entirely
with large mirrored glass panels, began shedding its 500-pound windows,
one by one. The window material had been used in much smaller buildings,
where it caused similar problems; the Hancock designers overlooked this
fact. Sheets of plywood -- more than an acre of them -- were put up in
place of the missing windows, and for years the streets in the neighborhood
were covered with tunnels to protect pedestrians from the falling glass.
The building also caused neighboring utility lines and foundations to crack,
and induced nausea in its occupants when heavy winds blew.
On September 1, 1983, a Soviet Su-15
jet fighter mistakenly shot down a Korean Air civilian airliner near Sakhalin
Island, USSR, killing 269 people.
On December 3, 1984, the Union Carbide
chemical plant at Bhopal, India leaked toxic gas, killing more than 6000
people and injuring and/or debilitating many more .
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle
Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff because a sealing ring failed.
The sealant material was known to be brittle in the cold, and the rocket
had spent many hours sitting in cold weather prior to launch.
In April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear
power plant in Russia suffered a partial meltdown due to design deficiencies
and sloppy maintenance. More than thirty people were killed in the short
term, thousands more suffered severe illness and/or impairment, and a vast
expanse of land, water and air was laced with radioactive contaminants.
On July 3, 1988 the US naval vessel
Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iran Air civilian airliner, killing 290
In 1989, Martin Fleishmann and Stanley
Pons, chemists at the University of Utah, announced their discovery of
"Cold Fusion," a simple, inexpensive way to produce nuclear fusion.
The method promised a future in which energy would be cheap and plentiful.
The announcement triggered wild financial speculation and frenzied, unsuccessful
attempts worldwide to demonstrate cold fusion. Later, it appeared
that Fleischmann and Pons had based their claim on poorly documented, sloppy
experiments, and were refusing to discuss the details . The insistent,
extraordinary claim, together with the lack of information that would allow
others to test it, made Fleischmann and Pons -- and their idea --
pariahs to much of the science community.
Juan Pablo Davila worked for the
Chilean government-owned Codelco Company. In 1994, while trading commodities
via computer, Davila accidently typed "buy" when he meant to type "sell."
After realizing his mistake, he went into a frenzy of buying and selling,
ultimately losing approximately .5% of the country's gross national product.
His name thereupon became a verb, "davilar," meaning "to screw up
And finally, comes the Y2K computer bug, the nature of which is all too well known to turn-of-the-century readers.
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© Copyright 1999 Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)
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