Just One Question: What Was Your Most Instructive Failure?
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison
My most egregious failure was the XH15 high-altitude helicopter for the U.S. Air Force, a development spanning about three years in the late 1940s.
The Air Force was to provide a new, vertical, supercharged engine, a major modification of an existing un-supercharged airplane engine, as Government Furnished Equipment (GFE). The critical point was that the program was small — only one aircraft and two engines had been ordered. As project engineer, I had no leverage on either the engine manufacturer or the Air Force when the engine would not perform satisfactorily.
On start-up the supercharger drive shaft would snap off, and it took months for the engine people to be convinced that a slip-clutch would fix it. Next, the engine surged with ever-increasing amplitude at about one hertz and the engine guys never did fix this one.
One tarnished silver lining, however, did appear: The supplier of the engine for the little Bell, fabled in M*A*S*H, came up with a substitute engine for flight test development purposes at lower power levels. A favorite test pilot and I had climbed to 15,000 feet above Niagara Falls when the engine quit, not to be restarted. As we autorotated toward the airport my job was to monitor the temperature of the top bearing of the transmission, which supported the entire weight of the helicopter. To save weight and cost — hugely more important in rotary-wing machines than fixed-wing — I had purposely avoided a separate pressure oil system for the transmission alone, relying on engine oil during powered operation and scooped, splashed, and mist lubrication when the engine was not running. If the top bearing became too hot we would have to bail out before the rotor mast jammed or broke loose. The pilot made a beautiful dead-engine landing in front of our hangar to complete the world record autorotation descent.
There were two lessons: The first, as any learned aviation person knew, is never build a new aircraft around an engine that doesn’t exist yet (Boeing and GE violate this, but at their peril); the second is how wise it was to fight to get the word “satisfactory” written into the contract in front of “GFE engine.”
—Tom Harriman ’42 Th’43
The following was a big lesson learned in my very first engineering class. In ENGS 21, the fall of my sophomore year, the class was assigned a project that had to do with sports and recreation. After many hours of brainstorming, our group came up with the idea of creating a “Goal Line Sensor” with the intent of using it in football but with the concept easily applicable to other sports with goals. The idea was to have some sort of sensor signal when the ball broke the plane of the goal line because the refs’ views are often obstructed by the jumble of players on the field. Anyhow, in our proposal presentation, our idea took a severe beating at the hand of several professors. We were told our project was not feasible, and that there were too many potential problems to make this project worth pursuing. We listened to our professors and selected a new project. A few years later one of the other members from that group was reading a magazine and found an article explaining that the very product we had proposed in ENGS 21 had, indeed, been invented and brought to market. I am not telling this story because I am bitter, and I certainly don’t hold anything against the professors, who I believe had our best interests in mind. The lesson to be learned is that nothing is impossible. If you have an idea that you truly believe in, go with it. So what if my teachers told me it was a bad idea; that was their challenge — and should have been my motivation.
As for what I am doing now: After taking the summer off to travel I moved down to the Washington, D.C., area. I work for a company called DC Energy, trading in the energy markets. The work I do is highly quantitative and is extremely challenging, but my co-workers are brilliant and it’s a great working environment. Outside of work, I have kept up all my sports, though skiing is not nearly as easy to do when you aren’t in New Hampshire!
—Daniel S. Hassouni ’05, Th’05
I left Dartmouth with a Ph.D. in 1977 and have stayed at the Cold Regions Lab in Hanover, where I then had a part-time job. I did my thesis on radiowave propagation in the Earth, and still work on it, having published 51 papers to date in refereed journals, mostly on subsurface radar. I’m most proud of my papers, my five NSF grants, and 10 trips to Antarctica, during each of which a discovery always happened. I’ve had no large disasters but many small ones, most of which centered around hiring the wrong people. The lesson learned is to never take on someone who has no vested interest, either in a career or research.
—Steve Arcone Th’77
My most instructive failure was that I applied to medical school during my senior year at Dartmouth and did not get accepted. Instead, I accepted a job offer from a campus interview with GE in technical marketing. I believe that engineering has been a better career path for me than medicine would have been, or perhaps I just learned to appreciate what I have! I have enjoyed part-time engineering careers with NASA, MIT, and GE that have been rewarding and flexible, allowing me to spend quality time with my husband and four children. Presently, I work for GE Aviation in Lynn, Mass.
—Ellen (Sullivan) Sen ’77
I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 potential investors who said “no.” I think there are many starving engineers (or starving artists in a scientific way) who are finding that their science and methods are good but have a tough time convincing markets due to timing, lack of vision, or trends in finance (there is very little venture capital out there right now, for example). Delivering a good product or service is so much more than engineering alone, and Thayer might want to acknowledge that we as alumni could have a clearinghouse.
—Toby Reiley ’81
I worked with Exxon Enterprises Inc. solar thermal systems division in the late 1970s. We had a lot of innovative people, but trying to build a new business in an infant industry with a new product was too much of a stretch. Also, you can be way too early on the technology curve, and that will doom one as well. It is very important to look at the key assumptions and then see how likely they are to occur — if the most critical ones are the least likely ones, then look elsewhere.
—Bob Garman Th’70