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Speaking of Failure

Technology leaps forward, but old-fashioned technical difficulties persist.

Photo: HENRY PETROSKI - There was an ominous hum. Then the lights went out, and the projector and microphone went dead. Long before the advent of PowerPoint presentations, speakers were notoriously anxious about their 35-mm slides working properly. The anxiety was fed by incidents of jammed projectors, blown-out bulbs, and improperly loaded carousels with slides upside-down, sideways, backward, or hopelessly out of order.

To obviate such disasters, speakers traveled with their own preloaded and tested carousels, and some also carried duplicate sets of illustrations both on overhead transparencies and in printouts. This redundant approach was carried over to early PowerPoint presentations, for it was often the case then that computers and projectors did not communicate easily.

Such behavior was encouraged by horror stories. One of my colleagues often told of giving a talk when the power went out. He was proud of his reaction: He passed his slides individually around the room so that seminar attendees could hold them up to the window and view them. Better small than nothing.

I had a similar experience recently that called for a different approach. I was giving the keynote speech at the annual meeting of the North Carolina Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Everything started out normally, and my PowerPoint slides worked perfectly for about the first 10 minutes of the talk, which was on success and failure in design and relied heavily on the images of bridges projected on the screen.

Soon, however, there was an ominous hum. The room lights went out, and the projector and microphone went dead. There was little choice but for me to raise my voice and continue in the dark, describing the slides that should have been there for all to see. Some thoughtful person opened the side doors to the ballroom, which let in some natural light from the windows across the hall. This illuminated the lectern and at least gave the audience something to look at.

After another 10 minutes or so, the projector went on as suddenly as it had gone off. I quickly ran through the slides that I had been describing in words only and, having caught up, continued with my talk — until the projector failed again and then, after another five minutes, came on again.

As we learned later, city workers had inadvertently cut some buried power lines outside the hotel. The resumption of power to the projector was thanks to the quick-thinking organizer of the meeting, who pulled his truck up on the sidewalk and ran a series of three extension cords — scavenged from around the ballroom — between his truck’s DC-to-AC inverter and the projector. The second outage occurred when someone tripped over the cords, separating them.

I eventually did get through my PowerPoint presentation, and it appeared to be well-received, no doubt as much because of the quick thinking and fast response of the engineer-organizer as my dogged determination to complete the talk.

Afterward, there were plenty of good-natured jokes and jovial compliments. Power had been restored to the hotel via its emergency generators, and people went their separate ways to committee meetings, dinner, and other commitments. My wife and I went up to our room to drop off my computer, which as insurance I had carried with me in addition to the memory stick containing my

Unfortunately, the hotel did not have as much redundancy in its power system. Its emergency generators were not capable of both keeping the lights on and running the elevators reliably. We found ourselves having to descend under our own power a dozen flights of redundant but obviously necessary and certainly welcome fire-stairs to get to dinner on time.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book is The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.




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