There are many quotable bits in Philip Nobel’s review of To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure (Amazon UK, US) by Henry Petroski, in the same edition of the London Review of Books as that Hilary Mantel article. Nobel’s article is only available to subscribers, but I especially liked this paragraph:
Since the 1920s, Canadian engineers have worn a ring on the little finger of their working hand as a reminder of their undertaking and the results of getting it wrong; the first rings, legend has it, were made from the remains of the Quebec Bridge after its humbling collapse in 1907. That failure, which happened before the bridge was completed, killed 75 workers and was directly attributed to engineers’ miscalculations of the weight of the enormous cantilevered span. The rings (before they were replaced by smooth stainless steel) were made of iron, left sharp and allowed to rust. Petroski celebrates the Canadian ‘iron ring tradition’ — which includes the reading of a poem written by Kipling for the bestowal ceremony, and its later, less poetic offshoot in the US — as a reminder to each engineer that his or her hand could be the one that draws the wrong line in a diagram, or computes the figures that prove inadequate to contend with gravity.
Petroski estimates that it takes thirty years, the span of a single professional generation, for the failure encountered within the working life of a cohort to be forgotten. This is the cycle the iron ring tradition was intended to break. Still, we see the same mistakes, the same short cuts, the same temptations, the same disasters, repeating over time.
I love that members of a professions have this permanent reminder of “their responsibility to the public”, as the Wikipedia article on Iron Rings puts it. More from there:
The Iron Ring is worn on the little finger (“pinky”) of the working (dominant) hand. There, the facets act as a sharp reminder of one’s obligation while the engineer works, because it could drag on the writing surface while the engineer is drawing or writing. This is particularly true of recently obligated engineers, whose rings bear sharp, unworn, facets. Protocol dictates that the rings should be returned by retired engineers or by the families of deceased engineers. Some camps offer previously obligated or “experienced” rings, but they are now rare due to medical and practical complications.
Physical, constantly-present items to remind the wearer of their responsibilities.
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