Engineering lessons from 1628

In 1625 the king of Sweden, Gustav II Adolph, ordered the construction of a new warship, to be christened in 1628 as the Vasa. Not content with average, or even excellent, he insists that his shipwright build the most powerful warship of the age, adding a second deck of cannon above the first.  The Vasa was designed to carry 64 guns, 300 sailors and 150 marines, positioned on a quarterdeck built extra high to allow them the shoot downward in close engagements.  A splendid design, a glorious ship, with extra attention paid to adding attractive carvings of royal images.

It is unclear if the shipwright made any attempt to push back on the good king as to the unreasonableness of the design. Of course design validation testing was not a common term at the time, and no one had coined DFMEA as an acronym in that century, but still there was a great body of knowledge available on ship design, stability and the principles of naval engineering.  Perhaps the shipwright did speak up , or perhaps he feared for his head and was silent.

This was after all the 17th century.

On August 10, 1628 the Vasa set sail in Stockholm’s harbor for the first time.  The king’s loyal subjects lined the quays and waterfront to watch the great ship, in an atmosphere of great festivity.  Within minutes of setting just four of the ten sails, the great ship heeled to port, then heeled harder, taking water in through the open gunports, and capsized, in full view of the onlookers.  The ship sank immediately, with at least 30 lives lost.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Substitute CEO for kingengineer for shipwright, job security for fear of beheading, product launch party for festive atmosphere along the quay, and industrial design for royal carvings, and the analogy is complete.  As engineers we should not blindly design and build a product to a set of flawed requirements. It is our duty to raise the flag when we believe, based on proper analysis and backed up by rigorous data, that a design is flawed.  When we see requirements for that extra gundeck that compromise our design margins, threaten the reliability of a product, or create product liability risk, we need to speak up.  Which is not to say that engineering concerns should always trump marketing or business requirements–far from it. (product safety is another matter, especially when risk to life or limb is present, in which case do not take no for an answer). But management needs to weigh engineering data into their decisions carefully, and make risk decisions–after all, business almost always means taking risks–based on hard data.

As to the Vasa, it was raised from the depths in 1961 and reconstructed painstakingly by the Swedish descendants of those that built her, a marvel of modern engineering and preservation science. The warship is on display at  the Vasa Museum in Stockholm (http://www.vasamuseet.se/), a must-see if you are in the area.

Skål!

Chuck

2 Comments

  • Donald Missey

    A lesson that applies to the program managers and engineers at NASA that knew of the O ring problems with space shuttle Challenger and the ice impact issues before the Columbia re-entry break-up.

  • Zeb

    They never listened to the quartermasters either, but they sure threw conniption fits when we ran out of embalmed beef.

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