Standards gone wrong

In researching my project on the history of technology standards I came across two interesting random standards disasters.

The first is the 1904 Baltimore fire. A massive conflagration in the downtown district forced the call for backup fire fighters to go out to Washington D.C. and surrounding communities. A special train was made up in Washington to rush assistance to the overwhelmed Baltimore fire department. Upon arrival the out-of-town firefighters learned their hose couplings wouldn’t fit on the Baltimore hydrants. Lots of capacity, but no connections. This lead to the national standardization of fire hydrant couplings.

The other random disaster was the loss of the $125 million Mars orbiter in 1999 when one group of engineers used the English standard of measurement and the other groups used the Metric system. When navigational commands were transmitted to the spacecraft it spazzed and was lost forever.

Anyone know of any other significant SNAFUs due to incompatibilities where loss of life, property or sanity ensued because of plugs that didn’t fit, rulers that didn’t measure, or IT systems that couldn’t communicate? I bet there are some amazing tales of corporate mergers that foundered on the rocks because of the latter.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Standards gone wrong”

  1. Robin Williams has a great routine on the Mars Lander fiasco. And i’d suggest some of the old timers at JPL/Cal Tech in Pasadena for other “woops” moments.

    Jim still awake in San Diego

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  2. Well, things I can remember out of my head of un-compatible stuff…

    -Metric vs English
    -Celsius vs Farenheit
    -British dirve on the “wrong side” (left), so do trains where british set them up… I allways tend to look to the rong side when crossing tracks.
    -220v vs 110v (which might be a “US only” thing, as far as I know, Europe uses 220 like LA, but their puwer plugs are different, adapters needed!)
    -Relativity vs Quantum Physics (not a standard, but they DON’T get along!)
    -Old thinkpad adapters on new thinkpads (wink!)
    -Anything “english” (pounds shillings and pence, anyone?) with anything non-english
    -Spain’s rail system with rest-of-europe track distance.
    -(Out of date) MIR’s docking system with the space shuttle
    -Interner Explorer with any w3 standard.
    -Windows with Unix disk partitions
    -Mac with anything else (wink! changing with Intel meddling in mac)

    There are plenty more… but those are the ones that pop out of my head.

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  3. Operation Barabarossa – World War II – German attack on Russia. The plan hinged achieving strategic control within 5 weeks. Logistics failed to support the effort, in large part due to differences in rail gauge between Germany and Russia. Instead of using rail, they were forced to use the already clogged and poorly maintained roads. The advance bogged down, and finally died at the gates of the Russian capital.

    Rail guage standards remain a huge issue throughout the world.

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  4. I have an entire chapter on rail gauges. This is an off-cited area with a lot of urban myth surrounding it, the most cited being the old story that the standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, eight inches is the same gauge as the span between ancient cart ruts left by Roman chariots.

    Gauge incompatibilities has been cited as a contributor to the Confederacy’s loss of the Civil War, as an intentional incompatibility introduced by rapacious robber barons to isolate competing railroad operators, and as a defensive tactic deployed by the Soviets (as cited by Mark C.).

    There was an interesting date of conversion in the late 19th century when most of the U.S. rail system went to a standard gauge literally overnight.

    Railroad gauges are an interesting proxy for the general issue of network standards — extensible to communication networks, electricity grids, and any infrastructure designed to connect its users.

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  5. Not so much a disaster but deviation in standards nonetheless: aluminum bats in collegiate baseball vs. wooden bats in the majors. The Cape league is the only college-level division that uses wood nowadays.

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  6. Ah, a fellow Codder. Wonder if wooden bats contributes to the reputation of the Cape League as the premier summer college league …. or it could be the fact that there are few better places to be in the country from June to August.

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