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The Pemberton Mill Collapse and Changes in Engineering Design

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This post was written by Lesley Anderson, 2021-2022 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

On January 10, 1860, the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, collapsed, killing and injuring many. It remains among the deadliest structural building collapse in United States history, but no one was punished for the loss of life, and the event is largely forgotten. Reports cited low-quality construction of the textile mill and overloading with heavy machinery, such as looms, as causes of collapse. What can we learn from the Pemberton Mill to avoid these engineering design mistakes in future structures?

Photograph showing the interior of the Pemberton Mill
Pemberton Mill, Union Street vicinity, Lawrence, Essex County, MA

First, consider the engineering process and identify a strong initial design for the specific building purpose. Show students this photo from the inside of the re-built Pemberton Mill, which was constructed on the same site later in 1860. Ask students to describe what they observe, then consider what equipment would need to be included in the mill and share their reflections about how the interior building design makes space for the equipment. Finally, students can draft questions that they would want to ask the architect about how the building structure meets the function of this mill.

Ask students questions to shape their thinking about engineering design vocabulary:

  • What structural characteristics are visible in this building?
  • What details in this photo suggest that this new building is structurally sound?
Blueprint showing different sides of the Pemberton Mill
Blueprint of the Pemberton Mill, Union Street vicinity, Lawrence, Essex County, MA

It is also important to iterate through the engineering design process and adjust based on previous failures. Showing students this blueprint of the new Pemberton Mill, ask what they notice about the structural design. Allow time for students to discuss which structural design considerations were likely a result of the lessons learned from the initial building collapse. Allow space for students to develop questions they have about the new building design and consider what could be missing from the blueprint.

Students can investigate the legal implications of this disaster by consulting newspapers. Students can work in pairs or small groups to determine their verdict for the responsibility of this calamity. One student can read this article that condemns the building integrity even before a jury was consulted. In comparison, this report accuses the mill owners of failure to render the building safe. These texts may help students uncover clues to what failed in the original building as the reflect on the blueprint for the new design. If students are working in a small group jigsaw, or are interested in first-hand accounts from some of the construction members, they can review this article. For a more engineering-focused discussion, students could investigate this piece about the iron support pillars. Students can re-examine this photo and engage in a conversation using academic vocabulary.

After their own court case discussion, share the jury’s actual verdict with the students. Students may be inspired to continue their research of the Library’s resources by looking at blueprints of other historic buildings, researching other structural engineering disasters, or continuing to investigate the Pemberton Mill disaster itself.

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