have made it the most powerful naval
vessel of the time, capable of delivering
a broadside of devastating proportions.
The men he had contracted to build his
ships attempted to explain that the ship
had too little ballast to support two gun
decks, and that the resulting ship likely
would be unsafe to sail. The King insisted—just like, say, many project managers—that his orders should be followed.
On a software project you can quit, but
if the King is your boss you might lose
more than your job—you might, say, lose
your head—so the project went forward.
In 1628 the ship was finally ready for
quality assurance (QA) testing. Seven-teenth-century QA of ships was a bit different from what might happen today.
Thirty sailors were picked and asked to
run back and forth, port to starboard,
across the deck of the ship. If the ship
didn’t tip over and sink, then the ship
passed the test. You did not want to be
on the QA team in 1628. After only three
runs across the deck the Vasa began to
tilt wildly and the test was canceled. The
test may have been canceled, but not the
project. This was the King’s ship, after
all, and she would sail. And sail she did.
On August 10, 1628, in a light breeze,
the Vasa set sail. She was less than a
mile from dock when a stiff breeze
knocked her sideways. She took on water, and sank in full view of a crowd of
thousands of onlookers. Approximately
30 to 50 sailors were killed when they
were either trapped in the ship or were
unable to swim to shore.
In response to the catastrophe, the
King wrote a letter insisting that incompetence had been the reason for the disaster. He was, of course, correct, but not
in the way he might have envisioned. An
inquest was held and the surviving members of the crew, the captain, and the
ship builders were questioned as to the
state of the crew and the ship at the time
of the incident. The mostly unstated belief by the end of the inquest was that
the design had been a failure and the
designer had not listened to the builders
about the shortcomings of the design.
Of course, the King could not be held at
fault, so the final verdict was an “act of
God.” As a related aside, the disaster was
also a huge economic loss for Sweden.
Now, this story may not be as well
written as Frankenstein, but it’s a much
more direct warning about engineering failures. I think the funniest or
saddest part of this story is how modern it is. Nothing has changed since
1628. People still fail to communicate,
leading to failures of disastrous proportions. Egos get in the way, mysterious supernatural forces are blamed for
human failings. It’s all kind of obvious
in a really sad way.
In the 1960s the Vasa was raised
from the bottom of the bay in which
it had sunk and eventually placed in
a museum in Stockholm. I visited the
Vasa in 2000 as part of the SIGCOMM
conference. The whole story is told
there in the plaques on the walls. It’s
a museum all engineers ought to visit
at least once.
George V. Neville-Neil ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is the proprietor of
Neville-Neil Consulting and a member of the ACM Queue
Editorial Board. He works on networking and operating
systems code for fun and profit, teaches courses on various
programming-related subjects, and encourages your comments,
quips, and code snips pertaining to his Communications column.
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