Design Flaw Article

by John W. Campbell Jr.

Notes by Nicholas Bernhard



Design Flaw appeared in the October, 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The author, John W. Campbell, Jr., was the editor of the magazine, and one of the most successful sci-fi authors of his generation. Among his works was the novella Who Goes There, adapted for film three times, most famously as The Thing.

The article was prompted by the death of Campbell’s stepson in a traffic collision. His stepson was in good health, physically and emotionally. He was a high-achiever in college, took no drugs, and had a full night’s rest before his drive. His car had received a tune-up the day before. In spite of this, on a day with good weather, he drove his car straight into the back of a truck. There were no signs his stepson had applied the brakes before the collision.

Campbell proposed highway hypnosis as an explanation (elaborated on in the notes below).

A second inspiration was a short story, also titled Design Flaw, published in the magazine earlier that year. It was about a test pilot who crashes an experimental jet. The crash is first blamed on pilot error, but later tests show that a blinking light in the cockpit had a hypnotic effect on pilots flying the jet. The pilot is vindicated.