How a train crash changed product testing

It took a deadly train crash to motivate companies to start testing products before selling.

How a train crash changed product testing 
February 15, 2018

Test first, then sell

These days we take materials testing for granted. We assume that products are tested for performance in the environment and the operating conditions in which they will be used. For example, a product designed to be used in cold weather won’t do much good if the case for the product cracks in temperatures below freezing. You get the idea.

Testing helps engineers to quantify and understand whether a specific material is suitable for a particular application. This may sound like a sales pitch, but it’s all about quality. And quality depends on both the process and the material. A company might have developed the best product ever, but if the material that goes into the product is defective, then the product itself might prove to be defective. In short, quality cannot be added after the fact.

Train crash led to materials testing

Products must be tested before being sold. But it wasn’t always that way. And it took a tragic train crash to get companies thinking more about quality and testing.

It happened on May 8, 1842. Hundreds of partygoers were boarding trains in Versailles, France after having celebrated the birthday of King Louis Philippe I. In fact, there were so many people that two locomotives were required to pull the cars. On the way to Paris, the lead engine broke an axle. That locomotive derailed and a chain reaction of crashes involving the second engine and all of the passenger cars followed. Fifty-five people died.

The train crash was the first of its kind in France and made world headlines. Multiple investigations and studies were launched, not only to prevent future accidents but also to assure the public that train travel was indeed safe. The probe found the broken axle. But investigators also noticed significant wear and tear on the axles of other cars. Not much was known about metal fatigue and the general wear and tear of machinery at the time, but the crash changed all that.

Historians say the tragedy marked the start of serious study into fatigue and fracture mechanics, including:

  • Stress and strain 
  • Impact resistance 
  • Fracture toughness 
  • Maximum elongation

These are all factors we take for granted now, but it wasn’t always that way.  

—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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