Steamboat Boiler Explosions & Coal Torpedo’s


The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.

–B.F. Skinner


In the U.S., safety & security almost always take a back seat behind commerce.

This historical principle is in evidence in almost any field.  Unfortunately, numerous examples of this have been documented in fields as diverse as infrastructure – dams, bridges, traditional & nuclear power; travel — by automobile, rail, & air; building codes, pharmaceuticals, children’s toys, & of course, the Internet.

The moderating advances in the safety & security fields within the disciplines of science, law, & social policy inevitably lag behind the technological innovation & first-to-market principles that have traditionally driven the US money engine.

Take the matter of 19th Century steamboat boiler explosions.

At the time, steam travel was miraculous – a technology that was a quantum leap past riding by horse or barge.  It, like the Internet, gained instant – almost magical — popularity.  The promise was rapid (well, faster) transport to distant locations of both people & commercial freight.  But these wonders came with a price.

Steamboat boiler explosions.

Big ones that killed thousands of people in steam & fire. In fact, the worst maritime disaster in US history – worse than the loss of the dreadnought, Arizona, at Pearl Harbor – occurred when at least three of the SS Sultana’s four boilers exploded near Memphis, TN in the spring of 1865.

More than 1800 people perished.  Consider for a moment the scope of this single, almost forgotten, calamity (& it was one of many).  If you were to scale the numbers of dead in the Sultana accident to 2011 population numbers, you would come up with approximately 18,000 dead in that one accident – four times more than those that died in the 9/11 attacks.

In the Sultana’s case, operator error – driving the boilers above their rated pressures  – is likely to have been the root cause of the catastrophe. However, in general, high-pressure steam engine designs, first introduced in the U.S. in 1816, had, over time, increased the internal pressure of boilers almost 20-fold. 

Boiler design safety measures & the strength of material used to build boilers had not kept pace with the demands of high-pressure steam.

What do steamboat explosions have to with Information Security?

Good question. This allows me to introduce what I refer to as The Sultana Axiom: “Operator error is inevitable when humans interact with technology.” 

A corollary of this is that “As any technology become more complex, the resulting errors will become more frequent & more catastrophic.”

Incidentally, steam boiler explosions were not all accidental. During the Civil War, Southern agents devised a weapon that eerily foreshadows the more common types of malware seen on the Internet today.

They spoofed coal!

The agents designed & built a forge that would crank out hollow, irregular spheres that resembled chunks of coal. They would fill these coal torpedoes w/ gunpowder – creating a disguised bomb.

A Coal Torpedo









Confederate spies would then infiltrate enemy lines and place coal torpedoes in the coal piles used to fuel Union steam ships & locomotives.  These hidden bombs, when shoveled into the fires that heated the steam boilers, would explode; destroying or disabling the affected vehicle & creating random havoc behind the Union lines.

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