Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology

Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology

by James R. Chiles

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Combining captivating storytelling with eye-opening findings, Inviting Disaster delves inside some of history's worst catastrophes in order to show how increasingly "smart" systems leave us wide open to human tragedy.

Weaving a dramatic narrative that explains how breakdowns in these systems result in such disasters as the chain reaction crash of the Air


Combining captivating storytelling with eye-opening findings, Inviting Disaster delves inside some of history's worst catastrophes in order to show how increasingly "smart" systems leave us wide open to human tragedy.

Weaving a dramatic narrative that explains how breakdowns in these systems result in such disasters as the chain reaction crash of the Air France Concorde to the meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, Chiles vividly demonstrates how the battle between man and machine may be escalating beyond manageable limits — and why we all have a stake in its outcome.

Included in this edition is a special introduction providing a behind-the-scenes look at the World Trade Center catastrophe. Combining firsthand accounts of employees' escapes with an in-depth look at the structural reasons behind the towers' collapse, Chiles addresses the question, Were the towers "two tall heroes" or structures with a fatal flaw?

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Anyone who's been caught in a traffic jam caused by an accident can attest to what seems to be a universal fascination with disaster. While an engaging topic does not guarantee a good book, this volume on the conflicts between machines and humans is accessible and free of excessive technical jargon. This is not a Luddite's call for a return to the days before complicated technology but a careful examination of various disasters such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, the Space Shuttle, and an assortment of industrial and airline accidents and how they might have been prevented. While not all accidents can be avoided, Chiles shows how a large number of them could have been. Chiles contributes regularly to Smithsonian magazine, Audubon, and Air & Space, and the level and style of writing exhibited in these publications is maintained in this text. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Technological mishaps and human ineptitude take center stage in this impressive, sometimes horrifying compendium. Chiles, a frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine on matters mechanical, has been salting away examples of machines gone bad and humans gone confused for a long while. Here, he rolls out scores of anecdotes whose underlying interest is in why accidents happen and whether we can think our way around them. Mishaps occur, Chiles writes, for many reasons. When the origins are mechanical, it is quite often the case that some simple, inexpensive part has given out, as when, in July 2000, an Air France Concorde jet crashed after a small strip of titanium fell from the engine of a DC-10 that had taken off moments before. More often, mishaps happen because a machine's makers or marketers are in a hurry to get the thing operational, as when NASA rushed to put the space shuttle Challenger into flight despite gas leaks caused, it was later determined, by a faulty O-ring. ("There is only one driving reason that a potentially dangerous system would be allowed to fly," an astronaut later observed, namely "launch schedule pressure.") Chiles touches on trains, oil rigs, cars, telescopes, and all manner of appliances, but his most gruesome tales center on aviation, where, it seems, the possibilities for error are endless and commonplace-for which reason, he notes, redundant systems and elaborate flight checks have evolved. Even so, he counsels that air passengers pay attention to flight attendants' safety instructions, and then some. (Count the number of seat rows between you and the nearest exit, he urges, in case the cabin fills with smoke and you have to feel your way out.) Full ofscary news, but unsensational and thoroughly documented. Just don't read it in flight.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
First HaperBusiness Paperback Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.82(d)

Read an Excerpt


On the Machine Frontier:
New Technology and Old Habits

To see what kind of strange new world we are building for ourselves, consider what happened in January 1969 at the Hungarian Carbonic Acid Producing Company, at Répcelak, Hungary. The company was in the business of removing C02 from natural gas and selling it. The liquid was stored in small cylinders as well as in four big storage tanks, cooled by ammonia refrigeration. The gas arrived at the plant with traces of water in it that had to be removed. On occasion this stray water caused gauges, fittings, level indicators, and even safety valves to freeze shut. But the plant kept running.

On December 31, 1968, the plant shut down with the indicators showing at least twenty tons of liquid C02 in each tank. The plant opened again late on the night of January 1. Running short of cylinders to store the liquid C02, operators directed the flow into storage tank C, which was supposed to have plenty of capacity. About a half hour later tank C exploded, and its fragments blew apart tank D.

The twin explosions killed four people nearby and ripped tank A from its foundation bolts, tearing a hole about a foot across. In escaping furiously through the new opening, the pressurized, liquid C02 acted like a rocket propellant. Tank A took off under the thrust, crashing through a wall into the plant laboratory, dumping out tons of liquid C02 across the floor, and instantly freezing five people where they stood. The deluge left the room at a temperature of -108°F, starved of breathableair, and covered with a thick layer of dry ice.

We have been hard at work for more than two centuries now, building a world out of cold iron that is very far from our ancient instincts and traditions, and becoming more so. Machines going crazy are among the few things left on this civilized planet that can still inspire deep dread. I mean the kind of dread that railroad foreman James Roberts felt one wild night on December 28, 1879, when he ventured out onto the mile-long Tay Bridge, crossing a bay off eastern Scotland.

He was looking for a train that had rolled into the darkness to cross the bridge but had not reported in from the other side. With storm winds so high that he had to crawl a third of a mile along the bridge on his hands and knees, he stopped at a new chasm, opening onto the black waters eighty-eight feet below. A third of the bridge had collapsed into the Tay River estuary, taking the entire train and seventy-five passengers with it.

That bridge fell as a result of a combination of design errors and quality control problems, exposed by the high winds and the train's passage. Those kinds of problems continue, but the consequences are higher. Each year the margins of safety draw thinner, and the energies that we harness grow in power. The specs of our equipment may surprise you. Petrochermical plants have pressure vessels operating at twenty thousand pounds per square inch; modern coal-fired power plants have combustion chambers so big that an eight-story office building would fit easily inside the furnace of some of these monsters. Pulverized coal shoots into their combustion chambers, making a roiling, continuous fireball in the center.

In the cause of cost cutting, our machines keep getting bigger, putting more eggs in fewer baskets. The new Airbus A380 double-decker jetliner will start with 555 seats but has the capacity to eventually carry eight hundred people, putting potential death tolls into the passenger-ship category. And marine insurers are vexed about a proposed new generation of giant container-carrying ships. The biggest container carriers now fit only 3,500 full-size cargo boxes; the new ones should fit up to 10,000 of the forty-foot boxes. A single such ship if lost at sea with all cargo could sock underwriters with a loss of $2 billion or more.

The most awesome machines working today are not easily viewed because they are either kept in no-trespassing zones or used in remote locales. Recently television viewers were surprised by footage of the 505-foot, 8,300-ton destroyer USS Cole being carried piggyback on the heavy-lift vessel Blue Marlin. The Blue Marlin's earlier work had been out of the media spotlight, hauling rigs and equipment for offshore oil fields.

Our machines take us into risky locales, which might be outer space, up on a two-thousand-foot-tall tower, or on an artificial island, making our lives entirely dependent on their proper functioning. A mile-long complex of drilling platforms and petroleum processing plants called Ekofisk sits in the stormy North Sea, far from view of shore. Workers excavate salt mines far under great bodies of water; one of these mines drained a thousand-acre lake in Louisiana in 1980, after a drilling rig punched a hole in the mine's roof.

Some industries, such as nuclear power and chemical processing plants, have been operating more cautiously after infamous disasters in the 1980s, but others have taken their place in the headlines. The last two years have seen the twin failures of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, an unintentional nuclear reaction at the JCO Tokai Works Conversion Test Facility in Japan; and a rash of fires and explosions at fossil-fuel power plants nationwide in 1999. In June 1995 the Royal Majesty cruise ship grounded on the shoals near Nantucket Island because the cable to its Global Positioning System (GPS) antenna had come loose. Nobody on the ship's bridge noticed that the ship was miles off course. Normally the depth alarm would have gone off when less than ten feet of water remained under the hull, but somebody had set the alarm to stay quiet until zero feet of water remained. Such chains...

Meet the Author

James R. Chiles began writing about technology and history while a student at the University of Texas Law School. His first piece was a 1979 Texas Monthly article on the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas. He began writing features for Smithsonian in 1983, and since that time has published features and cover stories there and in Audubon, Air & Space, Harvard magazine, and American Heritage of Invention & Technology. He lives in Minnesota.

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