For Want of a Low-Voltage Switch, America Was Saved

Posted on October 2, 2013


If you really want to be scared out of your cubicle this Halloween season, read The Guardian’s recent report on America’s fortuitous escape from nuclear cataclysm during the peak of the Cold War. The paper provides details from a now-declassified document revealing that the crash of an Air Force bomber over North Carolina in January, 1961, came within millimeters of leading to the detonation of a 4-megaton hydrogen bomb that likely would have killed millions along the U.S. East Coast.

Here’s what The Guardian published last month: A document obtained by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act discloses that two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs “fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage…. (I)n the newly published document, a senior engineer in the Sandia national laboratories responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons concludes that ‘one simple, dynamo-technology, low-voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe.’”

An online distributor lists today’s cost of a standard low-voltage switch at $12.85. The Air Force may have paid pocket change—10 times or even 100 times the commercial rate— for what may become known as the “Salvation Switch,” but fortunately it failed, and a holocaust was averted.

Like all good stories that send a chill up our coastal regions, this horrifying tale—seemingly one-third Burdick and Wheeler, one-third Stanley Kubrick and one-third Rod Serling—offers us a lesson, now that we can absorb it without quite so much panic 52 years after the fact:

High-tech is only as good as the low tech and fail-safe systems that support it. The most complex smartphone or the most advanced automobile is useless if support mechanisms like batteries and tires fail. The most intricate plans for ensuring our survival as a nation can be foiled—or miraculously saved—by a jammed spring or a stuck latch.

The same can be said of communications. The greatest idea, the most revolutionary manifesto, the brightest appeal to a marketplace can blow up in our faces simply because our grammar was wrong or our spelling was a disaster and we bypassed our fail-safe editing process.

Personally, I cringe at marketing pieces that declare, “Your welcome to visit us at the trade show,” as well as signs in a retail store delineating the Mens Department or, equally rickety in its construction, Menswear. (Even though some dictionaries may accept the latter, it can make men swear.)  Mistakenly using quotes for emphasis on signage is another way to cut your message off at the knees:  a sign declaring that your company is the home of “inexpensive” and “high-quality” products tells visitors just the opposite of what you mean to say: we don’t really qualify as inexpensive or high-quality, so we’ve put it in quotes.

The lesson suggests that, before you march out into the consumer field with your high-powered tech, double-check the position of all support mechanisms—have you switched “its” for “it’s”? Does your grammar require some rewiring? Are you ready to fly without endangering the millions of dollars and hundreds of people behind your product? Or are you about to unleash a marketing calamity?