6 Small Math Errors That Caused Huge Disasters

#3. Hundreds Die Due to Nightclub Door Hinges


If you were in Boston in the '30s and '40s and you weren't a complete square, you went to the Cocoanut Grove. It was the most-happening nightclub in town, and anybody who was anybody went there. OK, so sometimes it was a bit cramped and they liked to stuff as many people in there as possible, well over double the allowed capacity of 460, but this was our granddaddy's day. People were tougher back then! They didn't have warning labels and safety features plastered all over the place, and they got along just fine.

The stores around the Cracked offices have to be extremely specific.

Until 1942, when a fire killed 492 people.

But the thing is, most of those people died not due to fire, but due to door hinges.

The Laughably Simple Flaw:

A busboy had been groping around for an electrical socket, so he lit a match to see what he was doing. It accidentally lit some of the gaudy tropical decorations, which were ridiculously flammable, and quickly engulfed the club in smoke and flames. The fire burned so quickly that afterward some of the bodies were found sitting with their drinks still firmly in hand.

"I didn't bow to Prohibition, and I damn well won't bow to this fire."

Of the many safety violations, including overcapacity and decorating the nightclub with dry pine needles, there was one fatal flaw that you wouldn't even think of: Namely, that the exit doors all swung inward.

The main entrance was a revolving door that quickly became jammed with people trying to get out, so they flocked to other entrances and were pressed against the doors so hard that they couldn't open. The fire department estimated that if the doors had swung out, over 300 people could have survived.

"Form an orderly, single-file line and you'll all be allowed to die at your own pace."

Unfortunately, this was not the first time (nor the last) that having inward-opening doors killed people. The Iroquois Theater, Lakeview Grammar School, Triangle Shirt Waist Factory, Beverly Hills Supper Club and Dupont Plaza Hotel are all examples of mass fire-related deaths because the doors swung the wrong damn way.

If you think you're paranoid for checking which way the nearest exit door swings, don't worry -- we're looking, too.

#2. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapses Because It's Too Solid

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was considered a magnificent specimen of engineering, until it collapsed into the Tacoma Narrows strait, killing a dog who had been left in a car by his panicked owner (who apparently wasn't too panicked to whip out his camera and film the damn thing).

"Don't worry, Snoopy! It's like a fairground ride!"

Among engineering and physics students, it is literally a textbook example of what not to do and how, if you manage to screw up something big enough, no one will ever forget it. So what was wrong with it?

The Laughably Simple Flaw:

The bridge didn't have holes in it.

Ever notice how, well, flimsy large bridges look? You can practically see through the things:

jonpetitt / Getty
Just one more reason catapults are a superior transportation option.

You might have thought it was because the builders are just really cheap and want to save steel, but there's actually a reason for it: to let the wind through.

No matter how sturdily built a structure is, it will still move with the wind; the Burj Khalifa (aka that building Tom Cruise dangles off of in the new Mission: Impossible movie) can sway up to six feet on windy days. You have to account for it.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge didn't bother with that shit. Ain't no wind holes here:

Well, except for that little one there.

Right from the start, people knew something was up. Whenever the wind would start blowing, the air would catch the I-beams and shake the bridge like a paint can. The bridge deck would rise and fall several feet, and crossing it was like driving on a waterbed. It twisted and moved so much that the locals nicknamed it "Galloping Gertie."

Making things worse, the wind often happened to be blowing at just the right speed to get the bridge to vibrate at its natural frequency: a particularly dangerous situation. Realizing that bridges aren't supposed to have seizures, the state hired an engineering professor to try to fix the design mistakes. Among the solutions he proposed was the idea of just drilling some holes in the I-beams so the wind could pass through it without the bridge getting all pissy. An easy fix; we bet they felt silly for not thinking of it earlier.

But, before that or any of the other ideas could be enacted, the bridge collapsed.

"You know what's really safe? No bridge at all!"

They would rebuild it a decade later. And see if you can spot the simple difference in design:

It's still flipping the bird at nature. Behind its back.

#1. The Titanic Sank Because the Center Propeller Wouldn't Reverse


There are dozens of theories about how the Titanic sinking could have been prevented, from those who say they should have just rammed the iceberg head-on instead of trying to steer around it, to not taunting God prior to its first voyage.

The dummy fourth funnel was actually a Satanic bullhorn.

Human stupidity notwithstanding, most of the criticism focuses on the atrocious lack of safety features, but there is one obscure flaw that was intentionally designed.

The Laughably Simple Flaw:

The center propeller didn't work in reverse.

The Titanic had three steam-driven propellers, with the outer two driven by piston engines and the center screw driven by a steam turbine. Steam turbines have the advantage of generally being smaller and more efficient than their piston counterparts, but have the drawback of being one-way; that is, the steam can only flow forward and the shaft can only turn in one direction.

It's like trying to force a screw to go in counterclockwise. It's not going to happen.

So when First Officer Murdoch slammed the big girl into full reverse in order to avoid the iceberg, the outer two screws started turning the other way, while the center one just stopped (correctly portrayed in the movie). It sort of makes sense; if you're trying to go backward, you don't want one of your propellers still pushing you forward.

However, the center screw was directly in front of the rudder, and shutting it down meant less water was washing over the rudder, which crippled the ship's handling.

Wikipedia (fr)
Coque indeed.

Had the center prop been designed in such a way that it kept turning in the event of a reversal (or if they hadn't reversed at all), it's pretty likely the ship would have missed the iceberg completely, saving the lives of 1,514 people and eight dogs.

When he's not pointing out other people's failures, Chris writes for his website and tweets.

For more minuscule yet catastrophic mistakes, check out 5 Tiny Computer Glitches That Caused Huge Disasters and The 7 Most Disastrous Typos Of All Time.

And stop by LinkSTORM to see what happens when Brockway pushes the red button.

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