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What I Watched Last Night

Just when you think you've gotten over the fear of flying, driving over suspension bridges, nuclear power, and riding in submarines, The History Channel airs Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters. Here, we get an astonishingly simple explanation of how Engineering Disasters happen in the first place: Say you're zooming your way home 12,000 feet over Iowa and there are 473 little things going wrong at once. If those 473 things are just happening all willy-nilly, the worst that will probably happen is you'll end up taking a shuttle bus home from Gary. But if they all go wrong in a very particular order, you can pretty much count on a front row seat to the asphalt ballet.

We also learn from the show that there's nothing inherently life-threatening about major transportation products or civil engineering projects that have substandard components that blow up, fall apart, or ice over. That is, as long as there aren't too many other substandard products just like yours right next to them. So kids, the next time you're in class thinking you couldn't possibly have any use for advanced math or statistics in everyday life, credit most of your continued daily existence to it.

While the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 shows what you get when you go monkeying around with a nuke plant's atomic reactor turbine generators just to see what happens, you can't beat good old-fashioned laziness or ego to create the most stunning displays of engineering snafus. The day before California's St. Francis Dam collapsed in 1928 and sent a 125-foot wall of 12 billion gallons of water to drown more than 600 people in their beds, chief engineer William Mulholland inspected it and proclaimed that water leaking around his dam was "normal." When custom-built pieces of the The Hartford (Connecticut) Civic Arena roof didn't fit right, builders decided to prove that you can shove square pegs in round holes if you just try hard enough. Six months later in 1978, just hours after 5,000 hockey fans cleared out, the roof fell in under the weight of a snowstorm.

Nobody knows how many thousands of American soldiers died needlessly during World War I because of the Chauchat, our government's standard issue automatic rifle at the time. The Chauchat was a gift from France for Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson threatening to punch England's King George in the snoot, and historians unanimously agree is the worst firearm ever conceived both in form and function. Mud from the trenches packed the open-design magazine, and the thing was manufactured so horrendously that no two were ever alike. As one talking head put it, the only upside to the Chauchat was that you could "take the parts off it and make a still."

Meanwhile, the British were efficiently killing Germans with the highly superior Browning Automatic Rifle. Uncle Sam stubbornly stuck with the Chauchat to prevent the BAR from falling into German hands, never quite grasping the concept that a BAR is totally useless in the hands of dead Germans.

New York bridge designer Leon Moisseiff, a consulting engineer on the Golden Gate Bridge project, promised a more elegant and cheaper-to-build Tacoma Narrows Bridge over Puget Sound by sinking support girders eight feet into the ground instead of the original 25 feet specified by Washington state's blueprint for a "tried and true" design. The thing ended up being so elegant and gorgeous that engineers everywhere were introduced to brand new concepts known as mechanical resonance and torsional flutter when the whole mess fell apart in highly dramatic fashion in 1940. Quite simply, it's what happens when you don't give the wind enough room in a major windstorm.

Finally, Engineering Disasters happen because nobody really knows any better. We take uneventful rocket liftoffs for granted these days unless maybe it's one of our own space shuttles going up, but back in the day, sending up a rocket was like blowing up a toy balloon, not tying it at the bottom and letting it go. During the 1950s, fellows like Robert Goddard and Wernher von Braun (who developed the V2 rocket for Germany) envisioned putting a man on the moon, but were still pretty hazy on exactly how to go about it. It took everyone awhile to figure out that motors and nose cones melt when you light up a shitload of liquid oxygen, so the segment on rocket development was gleefully full of rockets falling over, exploding in mid-air, crashing into the ground nose-first, or just careening around end over end.

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Team Squirrel might be "World Famous For Dicking Around" on the Fox Reality channel, but as even the six Scottish lads who make up this group of dipshits will probably concede, the village of Cairneyhill is a small world indeed. If anything, this program shows there are jackasses all over the world willing to light themselves on fire and squeeze lemon juice in their eyes for, well, nothing.

So which came first, Dicking Around or Jackass? Not that it actually matters much, but the Dicking Around segments were filmed during 2002 (Jackass ran on MTV from 2000-2002), but Team Squirrel's homemade videos had become quite popular across the pond by 1998. Which again proves that in this country, there's no such thing as an original TV idea.

Anyway, the bunch is made up of six lads who go by the Jackass-esque names of Burkey, Fat Rossco, Smith, Cautious Dave, Jimmy Pube Face, and Vaseline Boy. Their dream is to prove they're good enough to score a trip to Hollywood by impressing actual, respectable movie and stunt directors with activities like a human barbecue, using one of them for target practice at the golf range, and going for a tumble in a clothes dryer. The reactions from the director-stunt guys range from outright amazement to outright laughter.

Basically, though, there's one major reason these guys aren't world famous. It's not because Jackass did the exact same stuff better. It's because the world can't understand a single damn word anyone in Scotland is saying.

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Scott Buckner watches TV.



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Posted on January 17, 2007


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