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Ancient Structural Failures and Modern Incarnations:

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Engineering Ethics Division Technical Session

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.196.1 - 23.196.15



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Paper Authors


Marilyn A. Dyrud Oregon Institute of Technology

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Dr. Marilyn Dyrud is a full professor in the Communication Department at Oregon Institute of Technology, where she regularly teaches courses in rhetoric, business/technical writing, and ethics. She is also a part of the faculty team for the Civil Engineering Department's integrated senior project.
She has been active in ASEE for more than 25 years, serving as a regular conference presenter and moderator. She was OIT's campus representative for seventeen years and served in various section leadership positions, as well as Zone IV chair. Currently, she is the chair for the Engineering Ethics Division and also is a member of the Engineering Technology Division's Executive Committee. She is an ASEE Fellow and, in 2010, received ETD's McGraw Award.

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Ancient Structural Failures and Modern Incarnations: Stadium Collapses & Engineering EthicsSometimes, things fall apart. In examining stadium collapses over the years, we discover thatthey may be due to weather anomalies or natural occurrences, such as the record snowfall in2010 that collapsed the roof of Minneapolis’ Metrodome or the 1994 earthquake that snapped themoorings of the 17.5 ton Jumbotron at Anaheim Stadium, sending it crashing into the upper tierof seats. Often, though, failure is attributed to engineering error: a professional misjudgment, amiscalculation, or an inability to resist pressure; for example, using lower quality materials tosave money.Engineering error is not just a modern phenomenon but one that dates back at least twomillennia. The Romans were known for their novel building techniques: stadia (for gladiatorialcontests) and circuses (for chariot and horse racing) were standard fixtures in any Roman town.Aqueducts ensured an ample supply of water, sophisticated sewer systems enhanced the qualityof urban life, and the Roman transportation system was a marvel of the ancient world, as was theinnovative use of the arch, the dome, and concrete. Some structures, such as the great Colosseumin Rome, have achieved iconic status, and Roman baths are still in use today in a number ofcountries that were once part of the Roman Empire.As an aside, it is necessary to note that engineering, as we know it, evolved in the late 17th/early18th centuries. The builders/architects in ancient Rome were referred to by several terms:“machinatoris /mechanici” (machine maker) “munitororis” (a fortifications builder), “faberbra”(craftsman), “architectus” (architect), or “cunicularius” (builder).As inventive as the Romans were, however, their structures were not immune from failure. In 27CE, the stadium at Fidenae, located 8 km north of Rome, collapsed, leaving 20,000 dead—nearlyhalf of those in attendance. A century later, in 140, the top tiers of seating in Rome’s CircusMaximus buckled, resulting in a death toll of 1,112. Because ancient entertainment venues werebuilt to house the entire population of the towns in which they were located, when things fellapart, loss of life was substantial: in the case of Fidenae, almost half of the town’s population.The design of modern stadia echoes their ancient origins; built in a style similar to the RomanColosseum, they are essentially amphitheaters with tiered seating, developed for ourcontemporary gladiatorial contests: soccer, football, athletic competitions. And, just like theirancient counterparts, structural collapses dot modern history. In 1902, for example, 25 werekilled and 517 injured when the west stands collapsed at a football (soccer) stadium in Glascow.More recently, the north grandstand of the University of Washington’s Husky Stadiumexperienced roof collapse during a 1987 renovation. And just last July, roof support beams failedat the Twente Stadium in Enschede, The Netherlands. Fortunately, the area affected wasoccupied only by a few maintenance people; 2 were killed and about 12 injured.The past thus offers an enlightening prism for examining contemporary times. This paper willfocus on the following: Presentation of cases: 2 ancient and 2 modern Explanation of similarities The role of engineering ethics: professional judgment, autonomy, responsibility, repercussions Suggestions for classroom usageLooking at the past can reveal much about the present; as Henry Petroski notes in hisexamination of bridge failures over a 150-year period, “Failures always reveal weaknesses andprovide incontrovertible evidence of our incomplete understanding of how things work.” Failuresshow us that we do not know what we think we know.While knowledge of past failures cannot necessarily guarantee a brighter present or future,students can learn how and why engineering errors occurred, thus raising awareness of theirprofessional duties. A side benefit is emphasizing the role of engineers in the development ofcivilization.

Dyrud, M. A. (2013, June), Ancient Structural Failures and Modern Incarnations: Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19210

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