Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology

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9780066620817: Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology

On July 25, 2000, a small piece of debris on the runway at a Paris airport caused a tire to blow out on an Air France Concorde during its take off. A heavy slab of rubber that spun off from a tire created a shock wave in a wing tank, which burst open and sent fuel streaming into an engine intake. As flames trailed two hundred feet behind, the aircraft rolled out of control. The crash killed all 109 people on board and 4 more on the ground.

The tragedy of that departing Concorde is just one of many such chain-reaction catastrophes that have occurred as the world has grown more technologically complex and as our machines have become more difficult to control -- and more deadly. Now, in a riveting investigation into the causes and often brutal consequences of technological breakdowns, James R. Chiles offers stunning new insights into the increasingly frequent machine disasters that haunt our lives.

The shocking breakup of the Challenger; the dark February morning when the Atlantic swallowed the giant drilling rig Ocean Ranger; the fiery PEPCON factory explosion in Nevada; a deadly runaway police van in Minnesota: Chiles tracks the causes and consequences of these system breakdowns and others, vividly demonstrating why the battle between man and machine may be escalating beyond manageable limits -- and why we all have a stake in its outcome.

Chiles reconstructs moments of confusion and then terror as systems collapse, operators make fateful, sometimes incorrect choices, and disaster follows. He uncovers surprising links between past and present tragedies, such as the connections between nineteenth-century steamboat explosions and twentieth-century nuclear power plant failures. And he analyzes the numerous near misses that don't always make the evening news -- times when the quick thinking, heroic gestures, and expert actions of a few individuals have saved the lives of many, often just in time.

Combining riveting storytelling with eye-opening findings, Inviting Disaster shows what happens when our reach for new technology exceeds our grasp, and explains what we need to know to survive on the machine frontier.

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Review:

Inviting Disaster, by technology and history writer James R. Chiles, is an unusual book: it appeals to the macabre desires that keep us riveted to highway accidents, while knowledgeably discoursing on the often preventable mistakes that caused them. At its heart are colorful stories behind more than 50 of the most infamous catastrophes that periodically chilled the advance of the industrial age. There are both those well remembered (the 1986 Challenger explosion, for example) and those now largely forgotten (a 1937 gas explosion at a Texas school that killed 298). But along with lively depictions of these deadly devastations and white-knuckle calamities--the U.S. battleship Maine, Apollo 13, and Three Mile Island among them--Chiles offers an informed analysis of the unfortunate chain of events that brought them about. And by grouping like incidents to show how fatal "system fractures" eventually developed through a combination of human error and mechanical malfunction, he also suggests how we might sidestep such tragedies in the future. In so, doing he fashions these spectacular accounts of failed planes, trains, ships, bridges, dams, factories, and other conveyances and facilities into a cautionary tale about technological progress. --Howard Rothman

About the Author:

James R. Chiles began writing about technology and history while a student at the University of Texas Law School. His first piece was a 1979 Texas Monthly article on the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas. He began writing features for Smithsonian in 1983, and since that time has published features and cover stories there and in Audubon, Air & Space, Harvard magazine, and American Heritage of Invention & Technology. He lives in Minnesota.

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