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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/September 1892/Incalculable Accidents

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 41‎ | September 1892


WHEN we consider the quantity of metal and the jars and strains to which it is subjected as railroad trains move at high speed, it becomes difficult to estimate the effects of accidents and to think of a way to evade injury. When caught between trains rapidly passing each other it is claimed that if the incautious pedestrian remain standing the result will be disastrous, and that safety is assured only by lying down. This peculiarly perilous situation illustrates a simpler phase of the complications that may arise when an accident is imminent, in which the danger may be principally due to the fact that the noise and interposition of one train conceal the presence of another.

The surprising and unexpected nature of some railroad accidents was exemplified in the experience of the engineer of a passenger train which was moving at the rate of about forty miles an hour. He felt a jar and heard a terrific clatter beneath his locomotive. At the same time he was astonished to find that the seat on the other side of the engine cab where the fireman usually sat had been torn away, and the fireman thrown backward and left insensible. The engineer instantly knew that one of the bars connecting the driving-wheels of his locomotive had broken. The partly detached piece of steel beat against the cab with severe blows caused by the rapid revolutions of the wheels. He jumped to his feet to escape injury, just as the bar on his side of the locomotive broke also and tore away the seat which he had vacated. The crippled locomotive was then derailed, causing general destruction of the running gear and woodwork of the cars.

This derangement in the mechanical structure of a locomotive occasionally happens, and it is one of the possible accidents that every locomotive engineer must guard against. It is clear that familiarity with special machinery sometimes lessens the fatality due to an accident, because the resulting effects have been looked for during many years, and the action to meet the conditions decided upon. But the complication is increased by the fact that each accident may be unprecedented. For example, at another time the side-bar broke away from the driving-wheels altogether, and, striking against a jutting point of rock, bounded beneath the train, which was under full head-way. This long, powerful piece of steel then flew along the track under the train and pierced a hole through the floor of the rear car. Meantime the brasses and some of the more delicate machinery on the forward part of the locomotive were torn away and, falling on the track or rails, threw off the last four wheels of the rear car, which was dragged in a slanting position, plowing up the gravel, for about a thousand feet along the edge of a high embankment. The occupants of that car never forgot the awful sensation, like that of a violent earthquake with its resulting uncertainty of footing. A striking characteristic of this accident was that the engine and forward car were not thrown from the track. Another accident of this kind, equally unexpected, took place under somewhat similar conditions, when one of the driving-wheels burst with terrific explosive force, a solid piece of the iron crashing through the woodwork of a passenger car, after having shattered the glass of a door. This ponderous missile shot along the aisle between the car seats, unpleasantly near the heads of the passengers.

The sign on many car doors notifying passengers not to ride on the car platforms calls attention to a danger which is more real than may be at first supposed. Some people who easily lose their balance may be thrown off a train, owing to the sudden jar of the cars at the beginning of a sharp curve, and the same effect may be brought about by the stopping and starting caused by coupling cars. In one such instance a man was thrown from the rear platform as the train made a jerking movement forward. There is also the possibility of a fall due to dizziness or momentary faintness. But probably the most remarkable case recently recorded occurred during a very high wind when a passenger was blown from the platform of a car which was running across the wide, windy expanse between Jersey City and Newark, New Jersey.

There is marked danger in trying to board a moving train, as shown by repeated accidents; yet so irresistible is the temptation to do this that it would be difficult to find a man who has not taken the risk. The car steps, as related to the position of an ordinary station platform at the level of the rails, are too high to be easily gained, and the rails over which the wheels of the car are to pass are nearer the edge of the car steps than is generally supposed. If, owing to miscalculation, haste, or a stumble, the passenger's foot is placed under instead of upon the step, the result may be fatal, because the movement of the body when swinging from the perpendicular railing at the corner of the car is then toward a position beneath the car platform. It is probably safer to jump from a rapidly moving train than to board the same train. The extent of the peril in leaping from a moving car obviously depends upon the amount of skill shown in alighting upon ground that slants away from the track. Of course, the many serious accidents caused in this general way suggest the radical importance of waiting for a train to stop.

The rules pertaining to the safety of passengers using the great transportation lines seem at times needless. But the movements of people who are distracted by trouble, who are absentminded, excited, mentally disordered, almost crazed by an amazing success as well as by an equally amazing failure, may be characterized by incalculably erratic action, even if the action be decidedly exceptional. Such people may have little more than the power of ordinary locomotion. In many instances, owing to the unprecedented nature of the occurrence, the individual at his best can not cope with the conditions. Some accidents may take place only once in a lifetime, and the person threatened is necessarily unable to instantly decide upon the wisest course.

Accidents may be dealt with coolly by the professional man, or the coroner who attends like cases. The growing complications of modern life are such that the highest form of natural shrewdness is almost inoperative under these rare circumstances when compared with experienced intelligence.

The modern railroad train, with its tremendous momentum, calls for a greater number of mechanical engineers of superior ability whose ingenious constructive power shall further lessen not only the danger but the amount of destruction caused by railroad accidents. Prevision of the effects of an accident may involve the elaborate calculations necessary to the solution of an intricate mathematical problem. In fact, the contingent or possible results in a given instance suggest the importance of long and careful training. Undoubtedly, with the lapse of time, and with wider experience, the imperfections in railroad construction and material will steadily decrease.

The accidents from contact with electric-light wires that carry a deadly current are well known, but the complex nature of these accidents demands special attention. Sometimes the attempt to close an iron door or an iron window shutter is at once followed by a severe electric shock, if not by serious injury. The men who repair ordinary telegraph wires have learned to be cautious because of the possible presence of a deadly current. An operative who was accustomed to the work of readjusting dangerous wires was killed because, unknown to him, an apparently disused, rusty wire was charged with intense electric force, as evinced by the fact that a metal cornice, wet with rain, carried the current from the wire through his body. A somewhat similar accident occurred to a skilled electrician who was connecting one wire with another on a switchboard. He lost his balance while on a stepladder, and, as he put out his hand to save himself, he by chance touched another wire, and this completed a circuit that killed him instantly. Still another phase of this kind of accidental death from electricity was seen in New York city when an Italian, who was cleaning a window, completed a circuit from his hand through his body, the current penetrating the sole of his shoe which rested upon a metal surface. A like accident, singularly fatal, happened to one of two clerks who had lifted a metal show-case to carry it into a store. The metal top of the case touched the metal extension of an arc electric lamp that had been left hanging too near the pavement. One of these clerks, moving hurriedly under the strain of the burden, chanced to step upon an iron cellar grating which caused the electric current to kill him instantly. The other clerk, who was lifting his part of the weight, stood upon the ordinary pavement and so was not injured. The metallic frame of the show-case had transmitted the current.

Some very serious injuries have been caused by an attempt to brush away an electric-light wire that dangled against the head of the passer-by. The muscles of any one who is unfortunate enough to grasp such a wire contract with uncontrollable persistence, and the electric current burns with an effect resembling that of white-hot iron.

The innumerable electric appliances, which are already beginning to compete with those run by steam, must increase the number of accidents. Rapidly growing power is at present accompanied by rapidly growing risk—a condition to be expected during early stages of advancement. But relative safety will doubtless be attained through the skill of an army of specialists who will be divided and subdivided into a greater number of groups as the new combinations multiply. Herbert Spencer's doctrine of the increase of heterogeneity during certain stages of evolution is thus reaffirmed in this age of mechanism. Yet there is every reason to expect that the development of intelligence will steadily eliminate the dangers arising from haste in construction. The loss and inconvenience which may be experienced while waiting for absolute safety should not be overlooked. In fact, prolonged delay is neither practicable nor desirable.


In his introductory lecture on the Anthropological History of Europe, Dr. Beddoe inclines to the modern view which regards Europe as the original home of the Aryans. He also discusses in a novel manner some of the causes which may be supposed to produce changes of physical type. Incidentally he records his opinion that a process of selection, which may be called natural, works against the perpetuation of certain types in our cities. He also remarks that more evidence exists than is generally known of the deteriorative effect of malaria on physical type.

The Antarctic Fund of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science has grown to £14,044, leaving only £1,000, or $5,000, to raise it to the £15,000 that are sought to complete it. It is thought that this remaining amount will be furnished by the colonial governments. As at present arranged, the expedition is expected to arrive in September, 1893, at its last coaling port and starting-point in the southern hemisphere.