ON MAY 8, 1842, A TRAIN loaded with passengers from Versailles to Paris in the wake of a birthday celebration for King Louis Philippe derailed unexpectedly, crushing passengers in a horrific accident that killed over fifty people — one of the earliest mass casualty train wrecks. During the investigation into the crash, experts determined that a front axle had suddenly fractured, though there was nothing inherently wrong with either its manufacture or its use. It was not the first time this phenomenon had been noted: three years earlier, the French engineer Jean-Victor Poncelet had struggled to describe how certain kinds of metal springs, in theory perfectly sound, could sometimes break without warning. Searching for a word to describe this malfunction, Poncelet wrote that these metal springs were susceptible to “fatigue.” Other engineers soon adopted this term: sometimes metal, like people, just got tired and gave up.
Poncelet, like others of his time, was borrowing from the lexicon of nineteenth-century medicine, which had recently developed the concept of neurasthenia, or nervous fatigue. Originally a physical ailment, neurasthenia had lately become a catchall term for malaise, apathy, and other amorphous symptoms: a new epidemic of tiredness, an inexplicable breakdown in a worker’s ability to be productive. The term “metal fatigue,” in those years before stress fractures could be measured and studied, suggested an hysteria of engineering, as mysterious to experts as psychological hysteria itself.
It’s no accident, of course, that these two kinds of bedeviling fatigue first presented themselves as problems in those early decades of industrialization. As George Beard wrote of neurasthenia in 1881, “The chief and primary cause of this development and very rapid increase in nervousness is modern civilization, which is distinguished from the ancient by these five characteristics: steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women.” The logic of early industrial capitalism meant pushing the limits of what a body was capable of doing; nervous fatigue was, in many ways, the obvious and natural reaction to the increasing mechanization of the body. Just as psychologists labored to ameliorate these effects through talk therapy and pharmaceuticals, so too did engineers work hard to solve the problem of metal fatigue. In the decades after the Versailles derailment and other high profile disasters, engineers like August Wöhler made great progress in describing and predicting metal fatigue, introducing the concept of a “fatigue limit” as a means of guaranteeing that metal wouldn’t be pushed past its functional threshold and lead to disaster.
And yet, in the decades since Wöhler’s fatigue limits were established, the list of disasters due to metal fatigue has continued to grow, including dozens of plane crashes and train wrecks — nearly all of which, in theory, should have been preventable. After each such crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) or a similar governmental body does an analysis and makes recommendations for safety improvements. And yet these improvements and recommendations buy us, at best, a few more years: inevitably, the same failures occur, and the same foreseeable tragedies dominate the headlines once again.
Why haven’t we learned to prevent these accidents, when their causes are so well understood? This is the question motiva...read more