From the Archives: The Tacoma Narrows

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: the Tacoma Narrows offers us an important cautionary tale on preventing disaster and respecting nature.


The Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse is one of the best known architectural failures in modern history, and it is used as a lesson by everyone, from architects and civil engineers to insurance agents.

Built in 1940 across the Tacoma Narrows in Washington State, the suspension bridge lasted less than a year before collapsing. The only casualty was a dog stuck in a car.

Due to a very tight budget, the bridge was constructed with lightweight girders, as per the lowest bid design. (In my work, that Tacoma Narrows lesson is one of the many reasons I don't just go for the lowest bid). During construction, the bridge's thin design, low weight, and less-than-durable construction resulted in frequent vibrations and shaking whenever the wind picked up. It got so bad that the workers nicknamed it Galloping Gertie. Not exactly a trust-inspiring name.

The Bridge Collapses

The Bridge Collapses

The bridge began undergoing severe oscillations (or, to be a bit less technical about things: the bridge shook itself to bits) under heavy winds on November 7th, 1940.

I won’t go in depth on the science behind the collapse; you can find that easy enough. I'm more interested in what lessons it gives us about ignoring nature. For all the amazing things mankind has done, we still need to respect nature or it will come back to bite us. All of our technology and inventiveness allows us to stand up to nature, but push it around? Not a chance. We need to foster a design philosophy that promotes working with nature, not against it.

This sounds like hippy talk, I know, but it's nothing new. Heck, the idea goes back millennia. Look at any number of cultures that lived in hot climates—high ceilings, big windows, light colored paint. Cultures that live with heavy rain? You build your foundations strong, angle your roof, and pick your building site really carefully.

Why'd I decide to blog about Tacoma Narrows, when so many people already use it as a lesson? Well, I think some people missed that one ⏤ like my son-in-law, who decided to have his shed built by the cheapest contractor: at the edge of a hill, with no real foundation to speak of. He's going to be picking his tools out of the stream for weeks.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Smart Financing

When my friend The Yard Ramp Guy tells me I can save thousands of dollars, my ears perk up. And my bank account lofts skywards.

Click HERE to be uplifted.

From the Archives: The Hyperloop

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: the Hyperloop would get you from Point A to Point B in record time. Hands and legs in the compartment at all times, please.


The way I figure it, most billionaires are just investors: they're simply using money to make more money. It's not real exciting, but if you really want to be rich that bad, I guess it works.

A few billionaires are more interesting to me, though—guys like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, who actually get involved in producing new things.

Elon Musk is especially noteworthy right now. He's started a private space corporation (SpaceX), co-founded Tesla Motors, and most recently is pushing for the Hyperloop.

The Hyperloop

The Hyperloop: All Aboard

The Hyperloop is a conceptual transportation system that would be able to move passengers at speeds twice, or more, of a passenger aircraft. Essentially, it's a high speed train in a sealed tunnel with most of the air pumped out, letting it speed unhindered by air resistance, track friction, weather, or any of the difficulties facing other modes of high-speed transportation.

This thing could potentially hit thousands of miles an hour (depending on how low they can keep the pressure in the tube; that's the big limiting factor). Rather than using maglev (magnetic levitation) or wheels, the train would float on air rails, very similarly to how an air hockey table works, and it would be accelerated by linear induction motors.

This concept isn't new. The idea of vacuum trains has been around for decades. This is one of the first attempts to really build one, though. While all of the initial design work was done by Musk's engineers, he then took the unusual step of releasing all of the designs and plans. All of them. He turned it into an open source project.

Most of the current work on the project is by a group of engineers called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. (The old saw about engineers getting to name companies holds true here).

That's not to say that it doesn't face plenty of troubles of its own. They've still got to figure out how to handle earthquakes, any number of technical issues, and even zoning issues. But I feel confident saying that we'll get to see this fly one day.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: The Forklift Ramp Secret

What on earth is my friend The Yard Ramp Guy doing, giving away trade secrets? It high time to find out. And the answer is rather timely.

Click HERE to spend a few rewarding minutes.

From the Archives: Funiculars

A Slippery Slope

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: ramps sometimes appear in the most unlikely of places. Which brings us to the funicular:


(Not) a Walk in the Park

You normally want ramps to have a relatively low slope: it's hardly going to cut back on the amount of work you need to do to get something to the top if it's too steep.

Unfortunately, it sometimes isn't possible to construct a shallow ramp, usually due to terrain. You've still got to be able to get up to the top, though, which is where funiculars come into the picture.

A funicular is essentially a pair of linked carts on rails going up and down a slope. Think elevator, but tilted to the side, and using each other as counterweights instead of having their own counterweights.

Funiculars take shockingly little power to operate, since you're really only hauling up the weight of the load. In fact, some low-tech funiculars operate by filling water tanks at the top cart and draining them at the bottom, which pulls down the top cart and vice versa. They're an extremely effective way to get around, and since they're usually in the mountains, you usually get a great view as well, except when you go through a tunnel. You also get quite a few in mines.

Depending on the amount of space available, the carts might have separate tracks, or they may share tracks. When they share track, there's generally a split rail in the middle of the run that diverts the carts around each other.

McCoy Fields, at rest

Me...on my own slippery slope.

Unfortunately, a funicular was the site of the worst ramp-related disaster in history. (Yes, definitely worse than the countless groin injuries caused by ramps in sports.) The Kaprun disaster occurred on a large funicular leading up to a ski resort. One of the large trams used in the funicular caught fire while going up the tunnel. The resulting smoke billowed up through the tunnel, killing more than 150 people, largely through smoke inhalation.

The disaster turned out to be caused mostly by poor training and a fault in the tram car, but public confidence in funiculars remained shaken for some years. (Maggie wouldn't let me ride the last one we saw, but I think I've finally got her convinced that they're safe.)

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Forklift Ramp Modeling

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy presents some amazing ramp photos that show the depth of his geographic reach across the nation.

Click HERE to enjoy the visual splendor of it all.

From the Archives: History’s Arc of Innovation

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: not to go all Ripley on you...but, believe it or not, I have a list of amazing inventions.


I always hear people going on and on about how we're in the greatest age of innovation and technology, with more amazing things being invented now than ever before. I'll have to beg to differ there, and I can back up my argument, too:

The Library at Alexandria

  • The oldest folding chairs date back to the 14th century B.C. from Ancient Egypt.
  • The first fishing reel dates all the way to at least 4th century China.
  • Beer predates recorded history, and has even been linked to the rise of civilization.
  • Wine predates recorded history and is possibly almost as old as beer.
  • Reclining armchairs date back to the Napoleonic War.
  • Organized sporting events predate recorded history.
  • The oldest dice ever found are more than 5,000 years old—coincidentally, they were found in the oldest ever backgammon set.
  • Humans bred dogs before recorded history, or even the invention of agriculture.
  • The earliest form of chess originated in the 6th century in India.
  • The Arawak Native Americans invented the barbeque grill long before any Europeans showed up in the Americas.
  • Yours Truly, Daydreaming Up Some Inventions of My Own

    Playing cards were invented in China during the 9th century.
  • The written word is between six and nine thousand years old; the first proto-books popped up not too long after.
  • The housecat was domesticated in Ancient Egypt, though some experts believe that the process started long before that.
  • The oldest known direct ancestors of the guitar are well over 3,000 years old.
  • Baseball caps are more than a century and a half old.
  • People began drinking coffee—in Yemen—in the 1400s.
  • Native Americans, probably the Arawak, invented the hammock in the Caribbean more than a thousand years ago.

So, the next time someone dismisses ancient peoples as primitive: just smile and nod, then kick back in a hammock with a beer and a good book.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Material Handling Statistics

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy describes how the Confidence Index is monitoring the pulse of the material handling industry. It's surprising, and in a positive way, given what's happening in the world.

Click HERE to read all about it.