Success and Failure in Engineering: A Paradoxical Relationship

It may seem strange to think of catastrophic failure as the means to success. But when it comes to engineering innovations, being wrong is not only inevitable — it’s vital.

That is the argument of Henry Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor at Duke University and the author of dozens of books, including his most recent, To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure.

On April 26, Petroski presented a lecture, “Success and Failure in Engineering: A Paradoxical Relationship,” as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series of McCormick’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

To illustrate his point that failure breeds success, Petroski pointed to a classic century-old engineering disaster: the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912.

“Imagine that the Titanic had not struck that iceberg,” Petroski said to a standing-room-only crowd in McCormick’s Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center. “That would have just reinforced the misconception that it was unsinkable. And every time it went across the Atlantic, it would further confirm that hypothesis.”

If that had occurred, competing shipbuilders would have integrated the ship’s design, building larger and faster ships with the same faulty bulkhead design, fewer rivets, and — since the design was considered indestructible — fewer lifeboats: in short, a fleet of ultimately deadly ships.

“Eventually however, odds are a descendant of the Titanic … would hit an iceberg, and all the thinking that was developed over the years would have to be rethought,” Petroski said. “A century of lessons learned can be effectively erased by decades or even just years of successful experience.”

The relationship between engineering failure and success is also evident in the progression of the suspension bridge from 1854 to 1931, Petroski showed. When American engineer John Roebling built the Niagara Bridge in the 1850s, he relied on four engineering feats: weight, stiffness, stays, and trusses. His bridge was a success, becoming the first of its kind that could carry rail traffic and withstand wind and storm damage.

But as time passed, pioneering and cost-cutting engineers parsed down Roebling’s design until they were constructing unstable and dangerous suspension bridges, such as Washington’s Tacoma Narrows, a bridge that twisted violently and finally, in 1940, collapsed — again, a failure that spawned new safety measures and engineering knowledge.

“It’s the failure that leads to success,” Petroski said, “while prolonged success leads to failure.”