Engineering’s Ten Biggest Mistakes

News this week of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge got us thinking about famous engineering screw-ups:

bridgephoto.jpg News this week of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge got us thinking about famous engineering screw-ups:

“The original Tacoma Narrows Bridge, dubbed Galloping Gertie, was the world’s third-longest suspension bridge when it opened on July 1, 1940. It collapsed in a windstorm about four months later, becoming famous as “the most dramatic failure in bridge engineering history.”

Most engineers are familiar with this notorious bridge incident, having learned about it in a basic physics course. See some great video here.

Coming up with ten examples of engineering-gone-wrong was a challenge, as the culprit of so many calamities is not bad engineering (safety factors at work here), but rather a motley assortment of organizational incompetence, exaggerated marketing claims, and operator error and misuse. Here are our picks, in no particular order:

1. Tacoma Narrows Bridge

2. Big Dig Tunnel (Boston, MA)

3. Ford Pinto

4. Bridgestone/Firestone Tires 5. Space Shuttle Challenger

6. London Millenium Footbridge

7. Aloha Airlines Flight 243

8. Hyatt Regency Walkway (Kansas City)

9.Maytag Front-Load Washing Machine

10.Denver Airport Baggage Handling System gasket.png

And just for fun, here’s a photo of the mold problem implicated in the Maytag recall, thanks to a frustrated former Maytag customer, Thomas F. McLoughlin (who as a VP of Engineering knows something about good product design!).



  1. How about grinding down the Hubble telescope mirror using an incorrectly assembled new piece of equipment then ignoring the warnings of the ‘less accurate’ checks using older equipment…

  2. We seem to have forgotten the sinking of RMS Titanic, a classic case of organizational incompetence, exaggerated marketing claims, and operator error and misuse.

  3. It’s easy to mock engineering and science when it goes wrong, but we should remember that the vast majority of items work. Many consumer items are not as reliable or long lasting as we would like, but they are designed to a price. That’s not the fault of the designers – most consumers place a low price near the top of their wish list.

    There have been many cases where the cause of some disaster has been found to be the lack of some simple preventative measure. Fire-resistance fabric in airplanes would have saved lives in the Manchester air disaster; a closed loop control system would have prevented the Zeebrugge ferry disaster. But in each case, management took the (arguably reasonable) view that such an accident was unlikely to happen and taking the necessary preventative action would add to costs – and hence the ticket price – and render the service less competitive.

    Most people, when buying an airline ticket go for the cheapest available flight. Few consider the safety record of the airline. So it takes government or other regulatory intervention to enforce safety standards. The same applies in other sectors. Seat belts are now mandatory on UK coaches. Prior to this becoming a legal requirement, few coach operators fitted them because customers weren’t interested in paying a bit more to travel in a coach fitted with them. Yet, they are known to save lives.

    Whilst it’s impossible to make anything 100% reliable or safe, engineers can make things as near to that as you want. It’s just a question of economics. In practice, most people are satisfied with odds of about 1 in a million when it comes to things like aircraft and car safety. Raising that to 1 in 10 million would probably triple the ticket price, so people turn a blind eye to the statistics and adopt the attitude: “What the heck – it’s unlikely to happen”. If all this frightens you, remember that most accidents occur in the home, so not going out doesn’t help.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, Wim.
    Are there any other reader suggestions for good books or articles to read? We could make a list to share.

  5. Tchernobyl
    Three Mile Island
    “Alexander Kielland” rig
    “Comet” plane
    “Understanding System Failures” by Bignell & Fortune ISBN0-7190-0973-1 is worth a read!

  6. I’m not sure if the Challenger should really be put in this list (although I could agree with the Columbia) – the engineers knew that they were flying outside of specified parameters (it was too cold), told the manglement not to fly on that day but were overridden anyway.

  7. What no mention of the Tay Bridge Disaster?
    Immortalised by William McGonagall
    Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
    Alas! I am very sorry to say
    That ninety lives have been taken away
    On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
    the official report of the time blamed design and poor materials. The remains of one set of the pillars have been left all the way along one side of the existing bridge as a permanent reminder for the future. Build Safe!

  8. The exuberance of British football fans is well documented. I suppose that is now taken into account in calculating the dynamic load on the structure!

  9. London Millenium Footbridge – a bit of a shame to see this on the list of ‘biggest engineering mistakes’.
    I remember the controversy well, but it is still a beautiful bridge!
    IIRC it was followed by a similar issue with a stand at Liverpool’s football ground. Newly opened, for a friendly game, the ‘bouncing’ Celtic fans caused serious structural concerns…

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