Monday, December 5, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Puget Sound's top 10 engineering bloopers

Seattle Times technology reporter

The Puget Sound region has a surplus of brilliant engineers.

They design airplanes that circle the globe, software that brings computers to life and medicines that ease suffering.

But the region has also had its share of engineering bloopers. The revelation last month that Seattle's monorail tracks are close enough for the cars to sideswipe each other was the latest in a series of embarrassing snafus over the past century.

Sometimes it's hard to blame anyone in particular. Engineering implies precision, but getting things done involves trade-offs — balancing goals and risks with the limitations of materials, budgets, schedules and space.

Things become complicated when politics are involved, as they were with the monorail. Operator error is the official cause of the Nov. 26 collision, but it was an engineering decision in 1988 that put the tracks too close together.

The tracks were rebuilt to accommodate a new shopping center, and the powers that be wanted to minimize their bulk near the center. A city councilman, drawing on a napkin, designed the tapered line, which requires drivers to yield to one another. It worked fine for 17 years.

"The world of engineering is the world where we build things three times stronger than they need to be, then something will happen and they get loaded four times more than they should be, and it breaks," said James Holt, who teaches engineering management at Washington State University. "We try and do the best we can within reason,"

Deadlines are also a factor. Last week Microsoft Vice President Amitabh Srivastava insisted his team will take its time to be sure Vista, the next version of the Windows operating system, is high-quality. But Microsoft has already told customers and Wall Street that Vista will be completed in late 2006.

The team building Seattle's famous Slo-mo-shun hydroplanes perhaps should have been so careful when they were rushing to finish Slo-mo V in time for a race in 1951.

Boatbuilder Anchor Jensen worried that the design would make the boat flighty, according to a history posted at Jensen persuaded team owner Stan Sayres to change the design, warning him that "those sponsons are not right," but the boat still went airborne in 1955.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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