Today in Science History- November 7 – Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse
Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse
Barney Elliott

On November 7, 1940, the bridge spanning Puget Sound across the Tacoma Narrows in Washington state dramatically collapsed.

The Tacoma Narrows bridge opened for traffic on July 1, 1940, as the third longest suspension bridge in the world. Almost immediately, the bridge earned the nicknamed “Gallopin’ Gertie” because of the way it would sway in the wind. The state hired an engineer to propose corrective methods to settle Gertie’s galloping tendencies. The study was concluded on November 2. The report recommended a couple of different options to address the problem. Unfortunately, the bridge didn’t wait for the repairs.

On the morning of November 7, the winds were pretty strong and the bridge swayed more than usual. As the morning progressed, so did the wind speed. The standing wave of the bridge motion approached the resonant frequency of the bridge itself. The bridge span began to jump and sway until it ripped itself apart at 11:00. The bridge swayed for quite a long period of time before reaching the breaking point. Local camera shop owner Barney Elliott was able to film the collapse.

This film is still shown to students of architecture, physics, and engineering. It is a dramatic lesson in resonance, standing waves, and wind shear. No future engineer or architect wants to be famous for designing things that fall apart. That is the sort of thing that makes getting new work difficult.

There was a single casualty in the collapse. The man seen running from his car in the film is named Leonard Coatsworth. Mr. Coatsworth attempted to cross the bridge but was forced to abandon his car and daughter’s cocker spaniel, Tubby. Tubby would not leave the car and even bit a potential rescuer, Frederick Farquharson. Farquharson was one of the engineers involved in the design of “Gallopin’ Gertie”. Tubby went down with the bridge.

The remains of the bridge were dismantled with plans to rebuild. World War II interrupted the construction and the bridge was not completed until 1950. This time, the design included an open design to allow the wind to pass through the structure. The new bridge does not sway when the wind blows. The locals named the new bridge ‘Sturdy Gertie’.

Notable Science History Events for November 7

1996 – NASA launches Mars Global Surveyor mission.

Mars Global Surveyor
Mars Global Surveyor

NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor lifted off from Cape Canaveral to begin its mission to Mars. The spacecraft was designed to enter Martian orbit and map the surface of the entire planet. It would also monitor the weather, magnetic field, gravitational field, and seasons of Mars.
The spacecraft reached Mars Orbit 300 days later on September 11, 1997. It completed its intended mission in 2001 and NASA extended the mission two more times until Mars Global Surveyor shut itself down to safe mode in 2006.

1940 – Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed.

1929 – Eric Kandel was born.

Kandel is an Austrian-American neurobiologist who shares the 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard for their discoveries concerning the propagation of nerve signals. Kandel’s work involved the role nerve synapses play in learning. He identified there were chemical changes in the synapses that occur when a behavior is learned and there are different chemical changes associated with long and short-term memory.

1928 – Norton David Zinder was born.

Zinder is an American biologist who discovered genetic transduction. Transduction occurs when hereditary information is transferred from one organism to another. Zinder was studying the Salmonella bacteria and observed how the bacteriophage took over the cell’s genetic material. He was also the first to discover a bacteriophage that used RNA as its genetic material.

1903 – Konrad Lorenz was born.

Konrad Lorenz
Konrad Lorenz (1903 – 1989)

Lorenz was an Austrian zoologist who studied animal behavior and related it to human behavior and the nature of learning behaviors from parents. This work would earn him part of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Karl von Frisch and Nikolaas Tinbergen.

1887 – Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman was born.

Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman
Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (1888 – 1970)
Nobel Foundation

Raman was an Indian physicist who was awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of Raman scattering. When photons strike a surface of molecules, most of the light will bounce off with the same frequency it started with. A small number of photons will give up their energy to the molecule and bounce back less energy. This scattering is called Raman scattering and can be used to measure the energy of molecular bonds.

1878 – Lise Meitner was born.

Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)

Meitner was an Austrian-Swedish physicist who discovered nuclear fission with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann when they bombarded uranium with neutrons. She was the one who identified that fission had occurred after examining the data. She also discovered the first long-lasting isotope of the element protactinium with Otto Hahn. Element 109, meitnerium was named in her honor.

Read more at Today in Science History – October 27.

1867 – Marie Skłodowska Curie was born.

Marie Skłodowska Curie
Marie Skłodowska Curie

Curie was a Polish-French chemist and physicist who pioneered the study of radioactivity. She was awarded two Nobel Prizes: the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel and the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium. They processed the mineral pitchblende and separated the chloride salts from the samples.

She died as a result of radiation poisoning before the health effects and hazards of radiation exposure were known.