A murderously recurrent theme surfaces as we read the record of technology. It can be decocted into the tidy epigram: “The fastest route to success is through failure. The greatest enemy of success is success.” When my civil engineering colleague Jack Matson recognized the validity of that idea, he began vigorously to promote the concept of intelligent fast failure. He said that we can speed our own creativity if we begin by running through as many wrong or foolish ways of accomplishing our end as we can think of. That process both emboldens us and instructs us in the full range of possibility. Conversely, success that fails to keep the boundaries of error within sight eventually takes itself for granted and leaves us open to failure on a grand scale. We skirted this issue toward the end of Chapter 9; now let us look at it more closely. A story of three bridges helps to expose the complex way in which success and failure work together. Henry Petroski takes us back to the forty-six-mile rail trip from Edinburgh to Dundee, which took half a day in 1870. Passengers had to ride the ferry over two wide fjords, arms of the North Sea slicing into Scotland. They are the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth. Then an English engineer, Thomas Bouch, sold backers on the idea of building bridges over those inlets. The first was an immense two-mile bridge over the Firth of Tay. When its eighty-five spans were finished in 1877, they made up the longest bridge in the world, and Queen Victoria knighted Bouch. Disaster followed almost immediately. The Tay Bridge collapsed in 1879, killing seventy-five people. Cost-cutting had yielded a bridge that couldn’t stand up to the wind forces. Bouch died in humiliation four months later. By 1881 the Tay Bridge had been rebuilt with heavy, unbeautiful trusses, and attention turned to the second bridge, the one over the Firth of Forth. The Firth of Forth bridge was to cross where the center of the firth was a mile wide, with only one shallow spot for a central pier.
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