The BP oil gusher in the Gulf, even if capped at last, is joining the Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster as one of those engineering catastrophes that will long be studied. A story in The New York Times makes the point that disasters provide far more information about how to fix flaws than ordinary engineering.
The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig will thus join the list of famous, deeply instructive disasters such as Chernobyl, the Hindenburg, the Titanic, and "Galloping Gertie," the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that famously collapsed on November 11, 1940. All were examples of engineering hubris, pushing the technology proudly into zones not tried before.
The story recounts what a bold gamble that Tacoma Bridge was. At the time the span of 2,800 feet was the third longest in the world. The engineering gamble was a light roadway, only two lanes wide and a shallow concrete roadbed. The lightness was a fatal mistake, since the bridge was not stiff enough to resist 40 mph winds which produced the famous "gallop" and broke up the roadway. Engineers thereby learned that these bridges need lots of weight and girth in their roadways.
The bridge that fell helped make Tacoma famous, since the disaster was captured by a camera. (The only fatality was a dog named Tubby.) “Tacoma Narrows changed the way that suspension bridges were built,” the engineering historian Henry Petroski told The Times. “Before it happened, bridge designers didn’t take the wind seriously.”
But such engineering feats are typical of this region, whether Boeing's gambles or the Grand Coulee Dam. Indeed, it's in the air again with plans for a deep-bore waterfront tunnel in Seattle, the largest diameter tunnel yet attempted. It turns out that Seattle is the center of boring technology in the world, with many of these bold thinkers itching to set a new record and prove it can be done. Whether the Seattle public has enough appetite for this mighty gamble, after losing faith in leading-edge engineering for deepwater oil wells, is suddenly an open question.
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