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Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach

Discover the surprising influence of failure in engineering.
Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 135.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Ignorance is not bIiss for the victims This course is reaIIy fascinating.I do not agree that it shouId be yoked to a course on advanced mathematics. Those peopIe that are possessed of such expertise wiII not need such instruction and those without wouId have been rather Iost and found it rather daunting to the essentiaI vaIue of the course for Iayman. The Iecturer provided enough information for any who feIt the need for such advanced Math. Speaking for myseIf, who has Scientific Statistics and a generaI IeveI of Math, but I do not think that it wouId avaiIed. What I found compeIIing were the case studies and the demonstration anaIogies and the expIanation of the engineering and PhysicaI concepts and the discussion of materiaIs and their characteritics of Stress, Tension, Compression and Resonance. I Iocated the course because I was interested in the engineering concepts that accounted for the Tay Bridge disaster. But the other case studies were aIso discussions of the other cause ceIebré was aIso interesting, especiaIIy ChernobyI, The Leaning Tower of Pisa, and Amiens CathedraI. In the interesting case studies one facet of CiviI Enginering is important, and often negIeted. The caIcuIus of negIigence, design, and the need for Redunancy [FaiI Safe mechanisms] to aIIow for human faIIibiIities at aII IeveIs and naturaI conditions.[MuIti Hazard Mitigation] and the important distinction, which is seldom made in the oft cIaimed pragatism of poIitics and sociaI pIanning between 'ObsoIescence' and 'Redudancy] and aIso the inherent dangers of ideoIogies of aII manner, which are negIected at our periI. This course shouId be compuIsory for aII personneI entering poIitics, and sociaI provision.
Date published: 2023-05-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from No engineering background? No worries! Although I have a college degree, I never took an engineering class, so I was concerned that this course might assume background knowledge I didn't have. Not so! Dr. Ressler explains all engineering terms and concepts thoroughly. His meticulously constructed models clearly demonstrate each engineering principal he discusses and provide a stunning visual re-creation of the engineering failures in question. After watching this course, I was struck by the complex and sometimes flawed relationship between those who design such structures, those who pay for them to be built and those who actually build them. This is a fascinating look at that interrelationship, as well as at the root causes of some truly "epic" engineering disasters. relationship between those who design such structures and those who build them
Date published: 2023-05-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Great Course's best. The subject is fascinating, the teacher is engaging, the choice of case studies are varied in both era and type (Galloping Gertie, Deepwater Horizon). My husband and I find the episodes stay in our mind, this course has been the cause of many interesting conversations. Check it out, you won't be sorry.
Date published: 2023-05-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Great Course indeed Interesting civil engineering stories and under-the-hood examinations told by an eloquent presenter, not a single dull moment. Enjoyed Professor Ressler’s simple and yet elegant models and beautiful 3D drawings and animations that clearly and effectively demonstrated the causes of various structural failures. Watching those demos alone in each class would worth the money paid for this class. Last few classes – Challenger Disaster, Katrina, Boeing 737 MAX – happened in front my own eyes. Great to know the root causes.
Date published: 2023-05-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Recommend a two track approach After reading several reviews, the solution to me is obvious: have two tracks. Track 1 would follow the current course design with no or little math. Track 2 would be more rigorous and include college level math appropriate to the course. The same presenter would prepare and record both tracks. The result should attract both levels of customers. I have a BS in Mechanical Engineering and worked for BP as a contractor. Understanding engineering fundamentals is key to getting the most out of this course.
Date published: 2023-05-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Great course Again Dr. Ressler has provided a fascinating course about engineering. I have no technical background but his clear explanations and visual "experiments" clarify the concepts . Informative and entertaining. As a former Social Studies teacher I appreciate the planning, care and obvious delight this professor takes in presenting the information. If you don't have an engineering background, don't worry. The explanations are at a level where any person interested in structures and buildings will be able to easily follow. (Also recommend his course on Understanding the World's Great Structures.
Date published: 2023-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lots of fun, very well done. Professor is loquaciously eloquent. Good delivery of interesting content.
Date published: 2023-04-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Prof Ressler is one of my favorite TGC lecturers and he delivers again. Each lecture is divided in approximately equal portions to three elements: 1. Technical analyses (which may not appeal to all viewers), 2. Engaging narrative, and 3. Illustration of the issues via easy-to-comprehend models. I will plan to but every Ressler course that TGC produces.
Date published: 2023-04-03
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In the fascinating 26 lectures of Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach, you will go behind the scenes of painstaking and captivating investigations to discover what really happened in more than 24 epic engineering failures. Your professor, civil engineer and award-winning educator Stephen Ressler PhD, reveals the story behind each disaster by not only demonstrating the scientific and engineering issues involved, but also by examining the individual personalities and sometimes dysfunctional organizations that led to catastrophe.


Stephen Ressler

In over two decades as a teacher, I've never experienced anything quite like commitment of The Great Courses to rigor in the course development process and uncompromising production quality in the studio.


United States Military Academy, West Point

Stephen Ressler is a Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he taught for 21 years. He holds an MS and PhD in Civil Engineering from Lehigh University and is a registered professional engineer in Virginia. He served in a variety of military engineering assignments in the United States, Europe, and Central Asia. He has focused his scholarly and professional work on engineering education and has won numerous national awards for engineering education and service.

By This Professor

Understanding the World's Greatest Structures
Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life
Do-It-Yourself Engineering
Understanding Greek and Roman Technology
Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach
Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach


Learning from Failure: Three Vignettes

01: Learning from Failure: Three Vignettes

What does a 19th-century British railway disaster have in common with the partial collapse of a hotel in 20th-century Kansas City and the 21st-century destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans? All were engineering failures that resulted in important improvements in the engineering process. Discover the very human issues that contributed to poor engineering decisions in these three cases, with disastrous consequences.

35 min
Flawed Design Concept: The Dee Bridge

02: Flawed Design Concept: The Dee Bridge

One spring evening in the mid-19th century, a three-span iron bridge across England’s River Dee collapsed just as a locomotive reached the middle of the third span. Railroad technology was only just coming of age, and this collapse was one of its most serious accidents to date. Discover how this accident inquiry led to improved bridge safety throughout the country—even though the exact collapse mechanism of this bridge is still debated.

37 min
Wind Loading: The Tay Bridge

03: Wind Loading: The Tay Bridge

When the Tay Bridge in Scotland was completed in 1878, it became the longest bridge in the world. Its collapse the following year, with a loss of 75 lives, triggered a crisis of confidence among the British traveling public. Discover the behind-the-scenes details of the bridge design and construction, and how the failure of one single, simple connection triggered a chain of events that brought down a 4,000-ton structure.

37 min
Rainwater Loading: Kemper Arena

04: Rainwater Loading: Kemper Arena

In 1976, the American Institute of Architects presented an Honor Award to Helmut Jahn for his innovative design of the Kemper Arena in Kansas City. Three years later, a 43,000-square-foot section of the roof collapsed onto the floor during a storm. Follow the forensic engineers as they painstakingly analyze the arena’s innovative design, including its roof drainage system, and identify four major factors that contributed to the roof’s collapse.

31 min
Earthquake Loading: The Cypress Structure

05: Earthquake Loading: The Cypress Structure

If you were watching Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, you saw the Loma Prieta earthquake as it happened. While the earthquake caused many fires, landslides, and structural failures, two thirds of the fatalities were caused by the collapse of the Cypress Structure, a two-level elevated highway. Explore the complex effects of earthquakes on structures and learn the role resonance and sediment-induced amplification played in this catastrophe.

37 min
Vehicle Collisions: Land and Sea

06: Vehicle Collisions: Land and Sea

When an unexpected squall limited visibility to near zero, the Summit Venture freighter collided with Tampa’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge on May 9, 1980, shearing off a reinforced concrete pier and toppling 1,300 feet of the bridge into the bay. Was this an engineering failure? Or was it just an accident? Discover how high-quality engineering design can account for and minimize accidental catastrophe.

32 min
Blast Loading: The Murrah Federal Building

07: Blast Loading: The Murrah Federal Building

On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh’s bomb demolished almost half of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Explore details of the building’s design and specific ways in which various structural elements responded to the blast. Is it possible that a few modest changes to the steel reinforcement might have allowed the building to survive with only localized damage? Learn how the investigation of this tragedy has led to a fundamentally new engineering design philosophy.

31 min
Structural Response: The Hyatt Regency Walkways

08: Structural Response: The Hyatt Regency Walkways

In 1978, a developer chose to build a hotel in Kansas City using a management technique called fast-tracking, in which construction begins before the design is complete. While the approach can work, it requires careful communication between the owner, design professional, and constructor. What can happen when each principal assumes that someone else has designed a critical structural connection? Explore the series of mistakes that led to the tragic collapse of two suspended walkways and the deaths of 114 people.

35 min
Bridge Aerodynamics: Galloping Gertie

09: Bridge Aerodynamics: Galloping Gertie

One of the most epic engineering failures in history was the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940. Nicknamed “Galloping Gertie,” the bridge undulated so strongly that thrill-seekers came from all over just to drive across it. Explore the inherent structural inefficiency of the suspension bridge, and why this bridge failed spectacularly only four months after its opening.

40 min
Dynamic Response: London’s Wobbly Bridge

10: Dynamic Response: London’s Wobbly Bridge

On June 10, 2000, Londoners celebrated the technological promise of the new millennium with the opening of a state-of-the-art pedestrian bridge over the Thames River. Two days later, the Millennium Bridge was vibrating so intensely that it was closed and did not reopen for more than two years. Explore the phenomenon of synchronous lateral excitation and learn how engineers were able to fix “The Wobbly Bridge” and develop methods to prevent similar failures in other bridges.

32 min
Dynamic Response: Boston’s Plywood Palace

11: Dynamic Response: Boston’s Plywood Palace

Boston’s John Hancock Tower was still under construction when winds of 75 miles per hour struck on January 20, 1973. By morning, 65 exterior glass panels—each weighing 500 pounds—lay shattered on the ground. Around that same time, construction workers reported severe swaying of the structure during winds. Were the two phenomena linked or was the timing coincidental? Discover how tuned-mass damper technology became an effective tool for controlling wind-induced (and earthquake-induced) sway—and why all 10,344 windows had to be replaced.

35 min
Stone Masonry: Beauvais Cathedral

12: Stone Masonry: Beauvais Cathedral

On November 29, 1284, much of the renowned Cathedral of Saint-Pierre at Beauvais collapsed without warning. Had this Gothic church simply exceeded the inherent maximum height of a stone structural system, as some historians have suggested? Watch fascinating demonstrations that both explain the function of the medieval flying buttress and point to the design flaws that most likely caused the collapse.

38 min
Experiment in Iron: The Ashtabula Bridge

13: Experiment in Iron: The Ashtabula Bridge

Handing lucrative contracts to family members is apparently nothing new, but rarely has it led to such a public catastrophe as the 1876 Ashtabula Bridge disaster. As you learn the fascinating history of entrepreneur Amasa Stone—a story filled with ignorance and hubris, as he built an iron bridge using a structural concept specifically developed for wood—you’ll follow the series of mistakes that led to America’s worst rail accident and worst bridge failure up to that time.

39 min
Shear in Concrete: The FIU Pedestrian Bridge

14: Shear in Concrete: The FIU Pedestrian Bridge

The Florida International University Pedestrian Bridge was created with long-span trusses made of reinforced concrete, using post-tensioning to prevent cracking. The cracks that did show up during construction were said to be “not a safety issue”—until a truss collapsed, killing six people. Explore the series of mistakes that led to this tragedy, including problems with the most sophisticated engineering tool of all—human judgment.

35 min
House of Cards: Ronan Point

15: House of Cards: Ronan Point

Modular, reinforced-concrete components can be manufactured in a factory, transported to the job site, and then assembled into multi-story buildings. But in one such 22 story development, a minor gas explosion dislodged a load-bearing wall on which the entire high-rise structural system depended, triggering a major collapse. Discover how this could happen in a building that was in full compliance with the governing building code.

33 min
Brittle Fracture: The Great Molasses Flood

16: Brittle Fracture: The Great Molasses Flood

In December 1915, United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA) built—without any formal engineering design—a massive cylindrical steel tank along Boston’s North End waterfront to store incoming shipments of molasses. When the tank ruptured three years later, 21 people died. USIA immediately blamed the rupture on an anarchist bomb attack, but a three-year legal battle pointed elsewhere. Explore the phenomena of metal fatigue and brittle fracture and learn what role they played in the Great Boston Molasses Flood.

33 min
Stress Corrosion: The Silver Bridge

17: Stress Corrosion: The Silver Bridge

On a cold night in 1967, the Silver Bridge in West Virginia collapsed into the Ohio River, killing 46 people. For 39 years, the bridge had been hailed as an engineering triumph with its cost-saving, innovative structural concept. Follow this fascinating story of forensic engineering as investigators eventually determined that the 1,965-foot bridge failed because one eyebar in a suspension chain fractured. But what caused this fracture?

30 min
Soil and Settlement: The Leaning Tower of Pisa

18: Soil and Settlement: The Leaning Tower of Pisa

What would the Tower of Pisa be if it weren’t leaning? Not as interesting, and certainly not as attractive to tourists. That was the issue faced by the late-20th-century engineers who figured out what caused the lean and devised a way to reduce the tower’s angle of tilt. Take a journey through the centuries to explore how various engineers tried to stabilize the leaning tower, but only succeeded in making the problem worse. Today, the Pisa tower has been saved; but what about the more recent “Leaning Tower of San Francisco”?

30 min
Water in Soil: Teton Dam and Niigata

19: Water in Soil: Teton Dam and Niigata

Within days of filling its reservoir, the Teton Dam began to leak. Bulldozers that were sent to plug the leaks were instead swallowed up by a growing sinkhole. By the end of the day the dam had been breached and the reservoir poured down the Teton valley in a tidal wave. Explore the potentially catastrophic effects of water moving through soil under pressure—whether in dams and levees or in the liquefaction caused by earthquakes.

31 min
Construction Engineering: Two Failed Lifts

20: Construction Engineering: Two Failed Lifts

Some engineering failures occur when the construction process goes badly awry. Explore two such cases: one in which five people died trying to implement an ad hoc solution to an unexpected construction challenge and one in which a building collapse was caused by a flawed technology that was intended solely to improve construction efficiency. Construction is the world’s most hazardous occupation, and engineering input can be as important during construction as it is in design.

32 min
Maintenance Malpractice: The Mianus River Bridge

21: Maintenance Malpractice: The Mianus River Bridge

You know that if you don’t maintain your car, it can stop working—no matter how good its design and construction. But we have often overlooked that lesson when it comes to bridges. Follow the fascinating case of the Mianus River Bridge and discover how lack of maintenance caused its collapse in 1983, although the bridge had just been inspected. What happened to those pin-and-hanger connections? And exactly, whose fault was it?

34 min
Decision-Making: The Challenger Disaster

22: Decision-Making: The Challenger Disaster

Unlike most structural catastrophes, the 1986 Challenger disaster occurred on live TV. Before long, the entire viewing audience became familiar with the infamous O-rings. Explore behind the scenes to learn about the personalities, conversations, and conflicting goals that led to this catastrophic result. It will become clear that this disaster—which killed seven people and threw the entire US space program into crisis—was as much a failure of organizational decision-making as it was an engineering failure.

37 min
Nuclear Meltdown: Chernobyl

23: Nuclear Meltdown: Chernobyl

No engineering failure in history had more world-changing consequences than the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union. Discover the numerous design, organizational, personnel, and bureaucratic flaws that resulted in the explosion of Reactor 4 during a routine safety test—releasing 800 times more radioactive material than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

43 min
Blowout: Deepwater Horizon

24: Blowout: Deepwater Horizon

You don’t have to know much about oil and gas to imagine the myriad of technical difficulties that come with drilling an exploratory well miles below a floating platform on the high seas. But after the presence of oil is confirmed, then what? Explore the step-by-step sequence of failures—flawed design decisions, careless oversights, deliberate procedural shortcuts, and prioritizing profits over safety—that led to the worst environmental disaster in US history.

40 min
Corporate Culture: The Boeing 737 MAX

25: Corporate Culture: The Boeing 737 MAX

What role should corporate culture play in the development of an airplane? Discover what went wrong in the development of Boeing’s 737 MAX and how the flawed design of the airplane’s flight control system led to 346 deaths in two separate crashes. Have we learned the apparently difficult lesson that prioritizing the corporate bottom line over technological excellence does not work?

39 min
Learning from Failure: Hurricane Katrina

26: Learning from Failure: Hurricane Katrina

The flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, was the costliest engineering failure in American history, and one of the deadliest. Local and federal authorities had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build a comprehensive hurricane protection system for the city; yet, this system failed catastrophically during Katrina. Discover the economic development decisions over two centuries that contributed to the disaster. And, learn how the disaster has stimulated a more sustainable approach to flood protection.

45 min