Site Map
Electrical Failure 
Innovative Projects
Internet + 
Example Sites
CV - Full
Published Papers 
& Articles
New Scientist 8 June 1991
Making a success out of a museum of failure

Antony Anderson wants us to own up to our mistakes
A pleasure of being an electrical engineering student in Dundee in the late 1950's was the magnificent early morning view across the still waters of the River Tay to the distant hills of Fife, especially when they were dusted white with the faintest hint of coming winter snow.

Having taken in the distant view, my eye would be drawn to the railway bridge - all 2 miles and 74 yards of it - then the only means of crossing the Tay below Perth, except by ferry. The bridge is a magnificent feat of Victorian engineering. Next to the bridge and visible at low tide were the piers of its flimsy predecessor, which collapsed during a violent storm on the last Sunday in 1879 with terrible loss of life.

The Tay Bridge disaster shocked the Victorians. It taught them the importance of allowing for the extra loads imposed by sudden gusts of wind, of checking the quality of every component before assembly, and of project managers keeping a close eye on contractors. Poor Sir Thomas Bouch! Up until then he had been quite a successful engineer. In Dundee to this day, to "bouch" something means to make a mess of it, with overtones of filling the holes in flawed metal with putty and painting the surface to make it look sound.

As students in Dundee, we would read William McGonagall's trilogy of poems about the Tay Bridges. The reader would declaim the passage about the braying of the storm fiend along the bridge of the silvery Tay, and we would demand an encore for the ending:

To give McGonagall credit, his bad verse captures the atmosphere of the disaster better than a board of inquiry ever could. The point is that engineering success is built on the lessons learnt from failure. But how can we transmit the lessons of failure to following generations?

I have investigated a number of failures of engineering plant and of management systems to perform as they should, and it seems to me that most failures could have been avoided. The relevant information is almost always available: the problem is that it is either not known to the right people or its significance is not appreciated. Far from each failure or disaster being unique, there is usually a past history of similar events that could have resulted in failure but which for some reason didn't. The wise investigator not only looks at the smoking mass of debris, but at similar machines or systems that are still in operation.

Sometimes failure, although appearing to have a technical cause, has its origins in the degradation of the system of management: operating practices are changed ever so slightly so that what was safe to do in one circumstance becomes dangerous in another. Or management fails to appreciate the inherent danger in current practice and will not spend money on training or safety measures. And some failures tend to repeat themselves at intervals as staff changes dilute the stock of hard-won corporate experience.

The maintenance of quality in the systems of the modern world depends on passing on hard-won knowledge and experience distilled out of past failure. It is too important to leave to chance. What we need is a Museum of Failure - especially the big failures - so that our successors can see our mistakes and what we have learnt from them.

What will this museum contain? It will, of course, feature the story of the Tay Bridge, including braying storm fiends. There will be push-button models to demonstrate the wind-driven galloping of iced-up  power lines and suspension bridges. There will be demonstrations of the electrostatic effects of steam and dry powder and how they have led to explosions. There will be sections devoted to famous disasters as well as failures on a microscopic scale - corrosion spreading from a pinhole in a painted metal surface - showing its consequences. There will be an exhibit to illustrate the effects of a computer virus and others to illustrate damage caused by arcs, sparks and poor electrical contact.

I would include a section on products that were before their time or that never made it, or that came to late, or whose failure to win a market could have been predicted from the outset - the Atmospheric Railway, the Princess Flying Boat, the Sinclair C5 and the electric motors built in the 1850's on the lines of steam engines by Charles Grafton Page.

There would be a section on the human factors that lead to failure : projects that failed to be completed on time and overran on cost, showing the roots of failure in lack of project definition and direction; something to illustrate the gradual degradation of systems, especially human systems over time and what can be done to prevent it from happening; and to bring home the human factor, a simulation of being at the bow doors of the Herald of Free Enterprise at the moment when disaster struck, with real water sloshing over the feet of the onlookers, with simulated interviews with the management, reconstructed from the investigation - without comment, to leave visitors to make up their own minds about the causes of the disaster.

Somewhere there ought to be a place for the expert opinions later shown to be wrong, like Sir William Symons, Surveyor of the Royal Navy, writing in 1837: "Even if the propeller had the power of propelling the boat, it would be found altogether useless in practice, because the power being applied in the stern it would be absolutely impossible to make the vessel steer."

Finally, I would end with a Failure Maze to sharpen up concepts of good and bad practice. Maybe then we could hope to reduce the incidence of failures.

I have no doubt at all that the museum would pay for itself in a short time, provided someone could find a way of crediting it with the costs saved by fewer failures and disasters. In the meantime, for those who feel a museum is a bit ambitious, may I draw your attention to these words from Rye Parish Church in Sussex:

These words capture the essence of a constructive attitude to failure : daring to make mistakes and having the courage to learn from them

New Scientist Forum 8 June 1991
©  Antony Anderson 1983 and 2000

Antony Anderson's website can be found at :
e-mail :

Notes on Engineering Failure

Prebble, J. : The High Girders 

Morris, Peter W. G., Hough, George H. : The Anatomy of Major Projects - A Study of the Reality of Project Management John Wiley & Sons 1987 ISBN 0 471 91551 3