Notable Ethics Failures

Tay Bridge and Ashtabula Bridge Disasters

The Firth of Tay is an estuary in Scotland, north of Fife and south of Dundee. In 1877 a railway bridge was erected across the firth by Thomas Bouch. The project was considered a marvel of Scottish Engineering and Bouch was knighted as a result. On December 28, 1879, in a blinding storm, the bridge collapsed sending a trainload of people into the Tay. Seventy five people died. The shock of the disaster inspired numerous literary works including "The Tay Bridge Disaster" poem which was influential in causing its author, William McGonagall, to be immortalized in history as "the all-time worst poet of the English language".

Official inquiry concluded that the bridge was "badly designed, badly built and badly maintained, and that its downfall was due to inherent defects in the structure, which must sooner or later have brought it down".

There was clear evidence that the central structure had been deteriorating for months before the final accident. The maintenance inspector had heard the joints of the wrought-iron tie-bars "chattering" a few months after the bridge opened in June 1878, a sound indicating that the joints had loosened. He did not attempt to re-tighten the joints, but hammered shims of iron between them in an attempt to stop the rattling.

The problem continued until the collapse of the bridge. It indicated that the center section was unstable to lateral movement, something observed by painters working on the bridge in the summer of 1879. Passengers on north-bound trains complained about the strange motion of the carriages, but this was, apparently, ignored by the bridge's owners, the North British Railway.

The enquiry destroyed Bouch's professional reputation: "For these defects both in the design, the construction and the maintenance, Sir Thomas Bouch is, in our opinion, mainly to blame. For the faults of design he is entirely responsible". Bouch died within a year of the disaster.

The Firth of Forth bridge was subsequently overbuilt.


In 1865 a railway bridge was erected across the Ashtabula creek by Amassa Stone and Charles Collins using an experimental bridge design that was preferred due to its relatively cheap cost. Collins objected but was forced to fall into line. On December 29, 1876 the bridge collapsed during a blinding snow storm sending the Pacific Express to its doom along with 92 passengers and crew. The wreck was especially horrifying because the wood stoves, used for heat, overturned and ignited the wooden cars. A conflagration resulted. Most bodies were not recognizable.


The board of inquiry found

  1. The bridge collapse was the result of defects and errors made in design, construction, and erection.
  2. A major defect appearing in many parts of the structure was the dependence of every member for its efficient action upon the probability that all or nearly all the others would retain their position and do the duty for which they were designed. That is, each member did not have positive connection with the rest, which nothing but a direct rupture could sever.
  3. The members of each truss were, instead of being fastened together, rested one upon the other, as illustrated by the following particulars:
    • the deficient cross-section of portions of the top chords and some of the main braces, and insufficient lugs or flanges to keep the ends of the main and counter braces from slipping out of place
    • in the construction of the packing and yokes used in binding together the main and counter braces at the points where they crossed each other in the shimming of the top chords to compensate deficient length of some of their members
    • in the placing, during the process of erection, of thick beams where the plan required thin ones, and thin ones where it required thick ones.
  4. The railway company used and continued to use this bridge for about eleven years, during which time a careful inspection by a competent bridge engineer could not have failed to discover all these defects. For the neglect of such careful inspection, the railway company alone was responsible.
  5. The responsibility of the disaster and its consequent loss of life rests upon the railway company, which, by its chief executive officer, planned and erected this bridge.

Both designers committed suicide shortly after the findings were published.