The Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture

By John H. Lienhard | Go to book overview

15
Ever-Present
Dangers

A murderously recurrent theme surfaces as we read the record of technology. It can be decocted into the tidy epigram: “The fastest route to success is through failure. The greatest enemy of success is success.” When my civil engineering colleague Jack Matson recognized the validity of that idea, he began vigorously to promote the concept of intelligent fast failure. He said that we can speed our own creativity if we begin by running through as many wrong or foolish ways of accomplishing our end as we can think of. That process both emboldens us and instructs us in the full range of possibility. Conversely, success that fails to keep the boundaries of error within sight eventually takes itself for granted and leaves us open to failure on a grand scale. 1

We skirted this issue toward the end of Chapter 9; now let us look at it more closely. A story of three bridges helps to expose the complex way in which success and failure work together. Henry Petroski takes us back to the forty-six-mile rail trip from Edinburgh to Dundee, which took half a day in 1870. Passengers had to ride the ferry over two wide fjords, arms of the North Sea slicing into Scotland. They are the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth. Then an English engineer, Thomas Bouch, sold backers on the idea of building bridges over those inlets.

The first was an immense two-mile bridge over the Firth of Tay. When its eighty-five spans were finished in 1877, they made up the longest bridge in the world, and Queen Victoria knighted Bouch. Disaster followed almost immediately. The Tay Bridge collapsed in 1879, killing seventy-five people. Cost-cutting had yielded a bridge that

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The Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Preface vii
  • The Engines of Our Ingenuity *
  • 1 - Mirrored by Our Machines 3
  • 2 - God, the Master Craftsman 20
  • 3 - Looking Inside the Inventive Mind 35
  • 4 - The Common Place 55
  • 5 - Science Marries into the Family 70
  • 6 - Industrial Revolution 86
  • 7 - Inventing America 96
  • 8 - Taking Flight 115
  • 9 - Attitudes and Technological Change 126
  • 10 - War and Other Ways to Kill People 139
  • 11 - Major Landmarks 153
  • 12 - Systems, Design, and Production 167
  • 13 - Heroic Materialism 179
  • 14 - Who Got There First? 193
  • 15 - Ever-Present Dangers 209
  • 16 - Technology and Literature 219
  • 17 - Being There 229
  • Correlation of the Text with the Radio Program 241
  • Notes 243
  • Index 255
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