Dear Colleagues


As you all know – common sense is NOT so common around here when it comes to avoiding industrial failures. Often these failures are caused by avoidable (always) strategies such as good maintenance, better quality equipment and better training for staff.

Historically, a hundred years ago a telegraph problem  could have disrupted a few people’s lives – however the scale today of the impact of an electrical failure (power or communications) can be huge.

Some examples of these spectacular failures (as listed in the IEEE Your Engineering Heritage: The $25 Million Ceiling Fan and the £100 Million Server by Robert Colburn) are quite laughable but were hugely painful to all involved:

EIT Stock Image

British Airways

The most recent failure which you may remember was the British Airways fiasco which probably cost the airline of the order of $120m involving a damaged computer server (and perhaps some inadequate training in remedying the problem). This caused the cancellation of all flights from two UK airports for a day causing massive irritation for stranded passengers (it was a holiday).


Newark Airport New Jersey

In January 1995, a construction crew damaged a 26kV cable (using steel piles so it was conclusively damaged) for the entire airport. Emergency generators weren’t sufficient. 70% of the flights had to be cancelled. There was a chink of a solution – two back up powercables – but they ran through the same conduit which had been damaged.So no cigar here either.


Smoke Shuts Down Airport

A few years ago, a tiny (cheap) extractor fan in a bathroom started smoking resulting in the evacuation of the entire O’Hare airport facility. A huge 800 flights were cancelled.Over reaction, perhaps.


Crashing the European Powergrid

A small drop in power to de-energise the powerline across the Ems River in Germany to allow a cruise liner to pass underneath resulted in blackouts across Europe from Poland to Morocco.Mainly because all the power supplies were on a knife edge.


Solar Storms

With the growing intensity of electrical transmission power lines throughout the world (particularly in North America and Europe), solar storms have created strange power power drop outs and impacted on delicate electronic equipment such as radar (again used for passenger flights).


What Should One Do about Preventing these Failures ?

It is always easy in retrospect to give solutions to these problems. What are good strategies to deal with these rather troubling issues ?

First of all – don’t go for the cheapest solution no matter how silly the purchase may appear. It may be a critical element in a chain of items.

Think carefully about safety and back up systems. Consider failure points of the entire system carefully.You may find something trivial could be the cause of massive failure.

Ensure staff  are trained to handle typical maintenance issues and also the grand swag of unexpected contingencies with common sense and a proactive approach.

Thanks to Robert Colburn of the IEEE History Center at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. USA.

A fabulous comment to bear in mind from William Gibson (Zero History): When you want to know how things really work, study them when they're coming apart.


Yours in engineering learning



Mackay’s Musings – 15th August’17  #665           

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