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The sudden collapse of Scotland's Tay Bridge in 1879 killed more than 70 rail passengers and shocked the population. An extensive inquiry was carried out, including numerous witnesses, experts and reports. Were the high winds that night to blame, or were poor design or mechanical failure at fault? This free course re-examines some of the original evidence from the Tay Bridge disaster.
By the end of this free course you should be able to:
- critically evaluate disasters and their causes, especially from mechanical or material failures;
- demonstrate the importance of systematic and rigorous analysis of disasters, so that future failures can be avoided or prevented.
- Current section: Introduction
- Learning outcomes
- 1 Disasters of natural origin
- 2 Disasters of human origin
- 3 Tay Bridge disaster
- 4 Investigation into the Tay Bridge disaster
- 4.1 Condition of the bridge: an overview
- 4.2 An introduction to the Board of Trade photographs
- 4.3 Photographs showing the detail: collapsed piers
- 4.4 Photographs showing the detail: partly collapsed piers
- 4.5 Photographs showing the detail: broken lugs
- 4.6 Photographs showing the detail: debris field
- 4.7 Photographs showing the detail: damage to pier 1
- 4.8 Photographs showing the detail: standing pier 28
- 4.9 Survey results
- 4.10 High girders and the train
- 4.11 Model for pier failure
- 5 Board of Trade enquiry into the Tay Bridge disaster
- 5.1 Overview
- 5.2 Eye-witness testimony
- 5.3 Worker testimony
- 5.4 Expert evidence: an overview
- 5.5 Evidence of Henry Law
- 5.6 Casting defects
- 5.7 Fitment flaws
- 5.8 Design problems
- 5.9 Mechanical tests by David Kirkaldy
- 5.10 Bridge stability
- 5.11 Further evidence on stability
- 5.12 Pole and Stewart report
- 5.13 Conclusion of the BoT enquiry
- 5.14 Questions remain and myths persist
- 5.15 Further investigation is possible
- 6 Afterword
- Keep on learning
Study this free course
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Tay Bridge disaster
This unit starts by giving an overview of the two main categories of disasters: disasters of natural origin and disasters of human origin. It then analyses the Tay Bridge disaster, which was caused by mechanical failure.
Inevitably, human factors emerge as important in many major disasters. They may involve the failure by engineers, designers or managers to recognise faults in safety-critical products, or managers overriding the design team for other reasons – such as keeping to a deadline or keeping costs within a predetermined budget. We cannot therefore neglect discussing such problems in failure cases.
One way of examining such events is by dividing them into two categories, those of natural origin, and those occurring to manufactured structures. The division cannot be enforced rigorously, however, because the one can cause or interact with the other. The great forces unleashed by natural effects can make a structure unstable and hence unsafe, or even destroy it entirely. Structures should therefore be designed to withstand such forces.
It follows immediately that designers need to know what magnitude of force to expect for the lifetime of their particular product. When structures such as ships, aircraft or spacecraft are made specifically to withstand extreme environments, they should be able to resist those forces safely.
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Copyright & revisions
Originally published: Wednesday, 20th July 2011
Last updated on: Tuesday, 31st July 2012
- Creative-Commons: The Open University is proud to release this free course under a Creative Commons licence. However, any third-party materials featured within it are used with permission and are not ours to give away. These materials are not subject to the Creative Commons licence. See terms and conditions. Full details can be found in the Acknowledgements and our FAQs section.
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