7 Deadly Engineering Disasters of the Industrial Age

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[ By Steph in 7 Wonders Series & Travel. ]

Engineering Fails Industrial Era

Messing around with money-saving shortcuts or failing to understand basic physics can have deadly consequences when it comes to engineering structures like suspension bridges, dams, towers and even storage tanks. These 7 historic disasters killed over a thousand people between 1845 and 1940 thanks to shoddy craftsmanship or the unanticipated strain of heavy snow, large crowds and strong winds.

The Great Yarmouth Suspension Bridge Disaster, 1845

Modern Engineering Fail Yarmouth Bridge

79 people, many of them young children, were killed on May 2nd 1845 when the Great Yarmouth Suspension Bridge collapsed under the weight of the crowd that had gathered to watch the stunts of one Nelson the Clown. The widely-advertised event drew people from all over England to watch the performer swim in a barrel drawn by four geese from Haven Bridge to the Suspension Bridge. Three to four hundred people rushed onto the suspension bridge to get a look at him as he passed underneath, and one of the rods gave way, spilling them all into the water. The youngest victims were just two years old.

Pemberton Mill Collapse, 1860

Modern Engineering Failure Pemberton Mill

Considered one of the worst industrial accidents in American history, the sudden collapse of the Pemberton Mill in Massachusetts on January 10th, 1860 killed 145 workers and injured another 166. The five-story textile factory buckled and then collapsed at 5pm on a Tuesday, while everyone was still at work. Attempts to illuminate the wreckage with fire in order to rescue the injured added even more chaos to the situation in the form of rapidly spreading fire. An inquiry found that the calamity could have easily been avoided; the owners had loaded far too much heavy machinery on the upper floors of the factory in order to boost production, and the building wasn’t up to standards in the first place, with cheap and brittle iron pillars and improperly mortared bricks.

St. Mark’s Campanile Crumbles, 1902

Engineering Fail St Mark Campanile

When Venice’s famous St. Mark’s Campanile was struck by lightning, burned and damaged in earthquakes repeatedly over 500 years, it probably would have been best to scrap the whole thing and start over. Instead, they left the base intact and simply rebuilt the damaged parts, occasionally adding more height to the tower that was originally constructed sometime between 1148 and 1157. That wasn’t the greatest idea, given that the tower’s foundation consists of no more than some oak beams on a bed of clay. So it’s no big surprise that the tower finally collapsed on July 14th, 1902. A large crack formed in the morning, rising diagonally across the main corner buttress. Falling stones within the bell chamber prevented any fatalities by warning bystanders that something was amiss. A new tower, with a much sturdier iron foundation, was built in the lost tower’s image.

The Boston Molasses Disaster, 1919

Modern Engineering Fail Boston Molasses Disaster

Drowning in molasses isn’t exactly a pleasant way to die. On January 15th, 1919, a large tank of the sticky stuff burst in the North End neighborhood of Boston, sending a wave rushing through the streets at about 35 miles per hour. The Boston Molasses Disaster killed 21 and injured 50 (along with many animals, including horses), and for many decades afterward, residents claimed they could still smell the molasses on hot days. At the time, molasses was the standard sweetener, and was often fermented to produce alcoholic beverages. The tank was said to be poorly constructed, and witnesses claimed that when it burst, rivets shooting out of it produced a sound like a machine gun.

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Ancient Engineering Fail: 12 Historic Structural Disasters

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[ By Steph in Culture & History & Travel. ]

Engineering Fail Main
You can’t exactly fault ancient architects for building structures that were unable to withstand stone-shattering earthquakes, or simply experimental in nature – failure is part of the learning process, after all, and engineering methods were obviously less advanced back then. Big ambitions led to taking big chances, which often resulted in faulty construction and, occasionally, deadly collapses. Here are 13 examples of mistake-riddled churches, statues, lighthouses, stadiums and more from the period between 2600 BCE and the Renaissance.

Bent Pyramid of Egypt

Engineering Fail Bent Pyramid

Why does Egypt’s Bent Pyramid, an unusual example of early pyramid development created around 2600 BCE, have a sudden change in angle about halfway up? Archaeologists believe that what we see today is basically a mistake created during the learning process, in which the builders realized that the steepness of the original angle would be unstable and prone to collapse. The lower portion of the pyramid inclines at an angle of 54 degrees, while the top is a shallower 43 degrees. Another 54-degree pyramid is believed to have collapsed while this one was under construction, leading the builders to suddenly change their plans. Subsequent pyramids in the area were constructed at the 43-degree angle instead.

The Colossus of Rhodes, Greece

Engineering Fail Colossus of Rhodes

One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the towering Colossus of Rhodes was a statue of the Greek Titan Helios that stood over 98 feet high on a pedestal in the city’s harbor. Erected by Chares of Lindos in 280 BCE to celebrate Rhodes’ victory over Antigonis I Monopthalmus of Cyprus, the statue was among the tallest of the ancient world. The statue stood for 56 years until the 226 BCE Rhodes earthquake, which brought it crashing down. After the oracle of Delphi stated that the Rhodians had offended Helios, they decided not to rebuild.

It’s certainly not surprising that seismic activity would have caused the statue to collapse, given that it was built long, long before any real understanding of earthquake-resistant engineering. But the fact that such a tall structure could have been built in the first place during that time is a wondering itself; modern engineers have speculated about the bronze plates and iron bars that would have been attached to the feet to reinforce them.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt

Engineering Fail Lighthouse Alexandria

Another ancient wonder, the Lighthouse of Alexandria stood somewhere between 393 and 450 feet in height, making it among the tallest structures on earth for centuries. But the limestone structure, completed between 280 and 247 BCE on the island of Pharos, couldn’t stand up to three earthquakes spread out over four hundred years. It likely lost its upper tier before the first one struck in the year 956 CE, and by the third disaster in 1323, it was abandoned. What was left of it was covered with a medieval fort in 1480.

Fidenae Amphitheater Collapse, Italy

Engineering Fail Fidenae Ampthitheater

20,000 people were killed or wounded in the worst stadium disaster in history, which occurred in 27 AD at the Fidenae Ampthitheater about 8 miles north of Rome. The structure was cheaply built of wood and not up to the task of accommodating the 50,000 people who amassed to watch gladiatorial games after a ban on them was lifted. The Roman Senate decided that too many lower class people were ruining everyone’s fun, so they banned anyone with a personal worth under a certain amount from attending the events.

Circus Maximus Upper Tier Collapse, Italy

Engineering Fail Circus Maximus

Built in the 6th century BCE, the infamous Circus Maximus was an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium capable of holding 250,000 spectators who gathered to watch the Roman Games and gladiator fights, and later, the races. The oldest and largest public space in Rome, and has been in near-constant use every since, with its latest incarnation as a public park and space for events like concerts and festivals. But in 140AD, it was the site of a major disaster: the upper tier of seats collapsed under the weight of too many spectators. 1,112 people were killed in what remains the deadliest sports-related incident in history.

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