Today a novel anticipates a real disaster. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The redoubtable Boeing 707
jetliner went into service in 1958. The English got
a big jump on us with their de Havilland Comet. It
was put into service six years earlier, in 1952.
But disaster struck the Comet after one year of
A Comet leaving Calcutta disintegrated in a
thunderstorm. When investigators couldn't find any
other cause, they blamed the storm. Eight months
later, a second Comet blew up in clear sky, 27,000
feet over the Island of Elba, off the coast of
Italy. It was hard to recover much from the ocean,
so that crash went undiagnosed. Then a third Comet
exploded over the Mediterranean, three months
later, and the whole fleet was grounded.
A more intense search finally yielded some
wreckage, and it showed the failure had occurred in
the cabin area. So the engineers did a huge fatigue
test of an actual airplane. They varied the cabin
pressure hydraulically while they flexed the wings.
After 3000 pulsations a crack appeared near a cabin
window and quickly spread. It turned out that the
Comet's designers had overlooked stress
concentrations at rivet holes near the windows.
The windows were redesigned, and a new safe Comet
went into service in 1958 -- only five months ahead
of the Boeing 707.
Now the oddest thing about all this is that a
former de Havilland engineer wrote a best-selling
book called No Highway in 1948 --
while the Comet was in the final design stage. We
talk in another episode about the author Nevil
Shute. A distinguished writer, he also wrote
On the Beach and A Town Like
No Highway is about a new airplane
called the Reindeer that's mysteriously crashed in
Canada. Our ears prick up -- Dasher, Prancer, and
so forth -- Comet was also one of the Reindeer. An
engineer, a structural theoretician named Theodore
Honey, is sent to investigate the crash. Honey has
his own theory that Reindeers should suffer a
fatigue failure after about 1400 hours in the air,
but no one takes him seriously.
Halfway across the Atlantic, Honey, who's pretty
oblivious to his surroundings, discovers he's
riding in a Reindeer. A few questions reveal that
this particular plane has been in service just
about 1400 hours. Honey suddenly has to assume
responsibility for saving 200 people who feel no
need of being saved from anything. I leave you to
find a video of the movie version of No
Highway to see what Honey did. (Its title is
No Highway in the Sky. It stars Jimmy
Stewart as Honey, and Marlene Dietrich.)
How did Nevil Shute anticipate the Reindeer
disaster? Author Henry Petroski's idea isn't
dramatic, but it's convincing. He thinks Shute
followed his engineering instinct, which was very
good, and it took him where real life had
eventually taken the Comet.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Shute, N., No Highway. New York: William
Petroski, H., To Engineer is Human: The Role
of Failure in Successful Design. New York:
St. Martin's Press, 1985, Chapter 14.
For more information about Nevil Shute, see
Episodes 110 and 1159 and the following website:
This episode has been greatly rewritten as Episode 1773.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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