Top Tech Screw-ups of the Twentieth Century
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Thu, 6 Jan 100 04:15:47 -0800
Subject: Top Tech Screw-ups of the Twentieth Century
X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649 -=[ Fun_People ]=-
[Not that the Twentieth Century is officially concluded yet... -psl]
Forwarded-by: Marc Abrahams <email@example.com>
TOP TECH SCREW-UPS
OF 20TH CENTURY
DEC. 29, 1999, CAMBRIDGE, MA. To honor the century that gave birth to
Murphy's Law ("Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong"), the people who award
the annual Ig Nobel Prizes have selected the 20th's twenty top technological
The screw-ups list was commissioned by Wired News and selected by the
Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). AIR is the science humor magazine which
every year awards the Ig Nobel Prizes, honoring "achievements that cannot
or should not be reproduced.".
"Inevitably and unfairly, several hundred thousand worthy achievements were
left out," said Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research.
"We chose for style and symbolic value, as well as for substance or lack
thereof. These screw-ups can serve as fodder for thought, argument, or pure,
Here, chronologically, are the 20 top tech screw-ups of the 20th century.
For further details, see http://www.improbable.com and
* * *
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 as valid.
On April 14, 1912, the ocean liner Titanic, described by its manufacturers
as unsinkable, sank on her maiden voyage.
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
On May 6, 1937, the hydrogen-filled dirigible Hindenberg, arriving in
Lakehurst, New Jersey, after a transatlantic flight, caught fire and
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
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 Ocean.
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 people.
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 royally."
And finally, comes the Y2K computer bug, the nature of which is all too well
known to turn-of-the-century readers.
* * *
Interestingly, only one of the century's 20 top screw-ups has earned an Ig
Nobel Prize. Juan Pablo Davila was awarded the 1994 Ig Nobel Prize for
© 2000 Peter Langston