History Column

Your Engineering Heritage: The $25 Million Ceiling Fan and the £100 Million Server

By Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center

It has become a monthly, sometimes even weekly refrain: massive airline or train delays caused by what often begin as minor glitches in the information or electric infrastructure. Recently and notably, a damaged computer server (with human error a possible factor) forced the cancellation in May of all British Airways flights from Heathrow and Gatwick airports for more than a day during a bank holiday weekend, an event that CNN Money estimated may lose the airline as much as £100 million (US $138 million). United, Delta and American have experienced computer glitches that have grounded airplanes. Failures in the aging power cables in Amtrak’s hurricane-damaged tunnels under the Hudson River, or signal and switch problems, frequently shut down the United States’ heavily-traveled Northeast Corridor, affecting sometimes scores of thousands of travelers at a time. In Chicago, a computer controlling signals and switches crashed in February of this year, shutting down all trains for an hour and a half during rush hour. It is no longer a question of whether the systems will fail, but when, how often, and with what consequences.  

These problems are not new; they go back to the earliest attempts to use electrical technologies in transportation. What is new is the scale. In the 1800s, a signal or telegraph problem affected a few trains, and perhaps a hundred or so passengers. Today, the effects can be global, and affect many thousands of people.  

In the 1800s, railroads were early adopters of the telegraph as a tool for dispatching trains. It increased safety and allowed more efficient and profitable use of their tracks and rolling stock.The telegraph even helped mitigate transportation delays; a telegrapher could be sent out with track or bridge maintenance crews to send messages to dispatch trains past the work site more efficiently. The growth of international telegraph cables led to globally-integrated shipping and railway timetables. This was an improvement for passengers and freight shippers, but as dependence grew, so did vulnerability. Even a brief problem with the telegraph could wreak havoc with the flow of passengers and freight. The press often pointed out the telegraph’s shortcomings. (As major users of it, journalists were often hostage to its vagaries.) In 1900, for example, the hugely important coffee trade in Jakarta, and the ships carrying it, were hobbled by a break in service by the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company.

In 1938, in an early example of how an “upgrade” can be a detriment to the system, an automatic signal that had been incorrectly rewired to make it compatible with a new power supply, cleared to green too quickly, and a London Underground Circle Line train collided with a District Line train being held at a signal ahead of it.  

If you are reading this in an airport waiting for an infrastructurally-delayed flight, or aboard a delayed train, here are some other notable transportation infrastructure missteps to put your delay in perspective, and, hopefully, to help pass the time until you are moving again.

But we have backups…


In January 1995, a construction crew driving the steel piles for a new parking garage at Newark Airport, New Jersey, pierced the power conduit and damaged the 26,000-volt cable which supplied power to the airport’s three terminals, ticketing computers, luggage carousels, and the pumps used to fuel aircraft. (Power for the runway lights, radar, and the control tower are on a different supply and were not affected.) The emergency generators lacked the capacity to replace the lost power. Seventy percent of Newark’s flights had to be cancelled, with inbound flights diverted to destinations as far away as Bangor, Maine and Chicago, Illinois. Fortunately, there were two backup cables. Unfortunately, they ran though the same crushed conduit.

Can you hear me now?

The telephone company accidentally shut off the telephone line linking Chicago’s O’Hare Airport’s air traffic controllers to the TRACON radar facility in Elgin, Illinois for about three and a half hours in 2006. Although the radar itself continued to function, controllers could not use the line to hand off flights to each other.

“Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” Was Supposed to be a just a Song

Eight years after the telephone line mishap, Elgin TRACON featured again in a massive transportation headache. Smoke from a bathroom ceiling fan motor resulted in the evacuation of the facility, and the grounding of all flights out of O’Hare (the world’s second busiest airport) and Midway airports for several hours, with eight hundred flights cancelled.

A River Runs Through It


The shipyard in Papenburg, Germany on the Ems River builds some of the largest cruise ships in the world. After they are built, the ships are maneuvered down the river to the sea, passing under a 380-kv line which crossed the river on (then 84 meter high, now 110 meter high) pylons at Weener. Because of the close passage of so much metal to the line, the power was turned off on 4 November 2006 to let the Norwegian Pearl pass. The shutoff took place earlier than originally planned, and the cascading failure from the resulting load imbalance triggered blackouts from Poland to Morocco, shutting down—among other things—much of Europe’s railroad system.

Of all the signal huts, in all the railways, in all the world, and that truck had to plow into mine…

In April 2002, a truck strayed off Interstate 495 near Claymont, Delaware, and across the grassy strip separating the highway and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor tracks. For a stretch of approximately two and a half miles of empty grass, there is nothing to hit—except for one ten-foot wide signal hut that controls the Holly Oak interlock. The truck hit it. Railroad service on the busy Northeast Corridor was suspended between Philadelphia and Wilmington, then delayed for hours. This reporter was on a train when it happened. The rebuilt signal hut has been protected with a barrier of large concrete blocks; a low-cost but effective solution.

I Spy with My Eye Something That Begins with Glitch

April 2014. A U-2 reconnaissance aircraft flying over Los Angeles strained the computer memory of the air-traffic control system. The U-2’s altitude (60,000 feet) was about twice that of commercial air traffic. The computer, attempting to de-conflict the U-2’s flight path with aircraft at lower altitudes, had too many possible flight paths and altitudes to process. Hundreds of Los Angeles area flights were grounded or delayed. Let’s hope the U-2 found what it was looking for.

Sunblock for Radars

An April 2013 solar storm created a disturbance in the earth’s magnetic field, which affected air-traffic control radars in Sweden for about an hour. Flights at Stockholm and Gotland airports were delayed, and Swedish airspace had to be closed temporarily. Neighboring countries reported no problems.

The lessons from history? One of them is: Don’t let accountants make design decisions. Running backup cables in the same conduit as the primary cable—although providing an initial savings—became a costly decision. Extra money spent either on a better backup system for its data centers or on better technician training would have cost British Airways far less than the £100 million the shutdown will possibly amount to. In many cases, hurried decisions (time is money) or reduced maintenance are to blame. That Elgin bathroom ceiling fan motor—measured in delay costs—inadvertently became one of the world’s pricier electrical components (approximately $25 million). Another lesson is to choose the failure points carefully.

As to why April seems to be the cruelest month for transportation delays, we haven’t an answer yet, but the IEEE History Center promises to put its best team of reporters on it.

Robert Colburn is the research coordinator at the IEEE History Center at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. For more articles by the History Center staff, visit their publications page at: https://ethw.org/Archives:Books_and_Archival_Publications or visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page at: https://www.ieee.org/about/history_center/index.html. The IEEE History Center is partially funded by donations to the History Fund of the IEEE Foundation

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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