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Honda Point Disaster – The wake-up call

We often take for granted the gifts that technology has granted us in making our everyday lives easier on so many levels. From sensors that monitor your reverse parking to space shuttles that set out to explore life on other planets, we are nothing short of a spoiled branch of life and evolution.


But our findings and discoveries did not come to the forefront without mistakes. Throughout centuries inventions did not arise just from necessity. Necessity just paved the way, but it was the errors that laid out the base for growth. We adhere to strict quality standards these days to ensure that errors are kept at a minimum considering the scale at which technology and mechanized components are used around the world these days.


Since history is our best teacher by example, here we discuss one such incident that reshaped how the world accepted the benefits of depending on technology and placing their trust in systems going forward.


Honda Point, California was the site of a naval tragedy resulting from a lean budget and distrust of new technology on a fall evening in 1923. The U.S. Navy lost more warships in ten minutes than it did to enemy action in World War I. As a result of this disaster, 23 lives were lost and $13 million worth of first-line Navy combat warships were destroyed. The route map of these ships listed out a return of squadron troops from the Puget sound area to the coast of San Diego with a pit stop in San Francisco.


The five lighthouses marking San Francisco - San Diego were memorized by maritime masters. Besides fixing a vessel's position with certainty, visual sightings of two successive lighthouses provided navigators with a critical check of their route calculations. Before the invention of RDF, plotting a ship's location depended heavily on topographical or astronomical sightings. If none were available, the navigator calculated the ship's position through dead reckoning (DR) with careful estimates of the distance covered since the last solid fix and the course followed, allowing for his ship's speed as well as the effect of winds and currents.


A series of long dashes was transmitted from the shipboard radio and received by a land-based RDF station. Rotating a loop antenna, the RDF technician aligned the device to receive the greatest transmitted energy (loudest signal). Visually, this put the loop perpendicular to the strongest part of the signal. A compass card at the base of the loop provided a bearing to the transmitting ship.


A weakness in the new technology was that, in 1923, there was no means of determining from which side of the loop the signal originated. The operator thus had two bearings-180 degrees apart-to relay to the transmitting ship.


This particular weakness padded with an earthquake that causes unprecedented waves in Tokyo the previous week led to a miscalculation in the navigation and caused the ships to head onto the rocky mountains.


The ships of the entire fleet followed one behind the other into their doom. Even though the ships could not be saved, rescue attempts were able to save the lives of some. Twenty-three sailors died and seven ships were destroyed in the aftermath of this disaster, being labeled the biggest disaster in the history of the US Navy.


To avoid history repeating itself, better quality checks were employed to ensure better safety in maritime navigational solutions.


Quality assurance enabled by timely calibration and repeated checks ensures that such disasters can be avoided on a large scale and that our systems can indeed be deemed trustworthy!

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