The collapse of the bridge was recorded on film by Barney Elliott, owner of a local camera shop, and shows Leonard Coatsworth leaving the bridge after exiting his car. In 1998, The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." This footage is still shown to engineering, architecture, and physics students as a cautionary tale. Elliot's original films of the construction and collapse of the bridge were shot on 16mm Kodachrome film, but most copies in circulation are in black and white because newsreels of the day copied the film onto 35mm black and white stock.
The bridge was solidly built, with girders of carbon steel anchored in huge blocks of concrete. Preceding designs typically had open lattice beam trusses underneath the roadbed. This bridge was the first of its type to employ plate girders (pairs of deep I beams) to support the roadbed. With the earlier designs any wind would simply pass through the truss, but in the new design the wind would be diverted above and below the structure. Shortly after construction finished at the end of June (opened to traffic on July 1, 1940), it was discovered that the bridge would sway and buckle dangerously in relatively mild windy conditions for the area. This resonance was transverse, meaning the bridge buckled along its length, with the roadbed alternately raised and depressed in certain locations -- one half of the central span would rise while the other lowered. Drivers would see cars approaching from the other direction disappear into valleys which were dynamically appearing and disappearing. From this behavior, a local humorist coined the nickname "Galloping Gertie". However, the mass of the bridge was considered sufficient to keep it structurally sound. The failure of the bridge occurred when a never-before-seen twisting mode occurred, from winds at a mild 40 MPH. This is called a torsional, rather than longitudinal, mode (see also torque) whereby when the left side of the roadway went down, the right side would rise, and vice-versa, with the centerline of the road remaining still. Specifically, it was the second torsional mode, in which the midpoint of the bridge remained motionless while the two halves of the bridge twisted in opposite directions. Two men proved this point by walking along the center line, unaffected by the flapping of the roadway rising and falling to each side. This vibration was due to aeroelastic flutter. Flutter occurs when a torsional disturbance in the structure increases the angle of attack of the bridge (that is, the angle between the wind and the bridge). The structure responds by twisting further. Eventually, the angle of attack increases to the point of stall, and the bridge begins to twist in the opposite direction. In the case of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, this mode was negatively damped (or had positive feedback), meaning it increased in amplitude with each cycle because the wind pumped in more energy than the flexing of the structure dissipated. Eventually, the amplitude of the motion increased beyond the strength of a vital part, in this case the suspender cables. Once several cables failed, the weight of the deck transferred to the adjacent cables which broke in turn until almost all of the central deck fell into the water below the span. The bridge's spectacular self-destruction is often used as an object lesson in the necessity to consider both aerodynamics and resonance effects in civil and structural engineering. However the effect that caused the destruction of the bridge should not be confused with forced resonance (as from the periodic motion induced by a group of soldiers marching in step across a bridge). In the case of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, there was no periodic disturbance. The wind was steady at 42 mph (67 km/h). The frequency of the destructive mode, 0.2 Hz, was neither a natural mode of the isolated structure nor the frequency of blunt-body vortex shedding of the bridge at that wind speed. The event can only be understood while considering the coupled aerodynamic and structural system which requires rigorous mathematical analysis to reveal all the degrees of freedom of the particular structure and the set of design loads imposed. In 1943, New York City's similarly slim Whitestone Bridge was retrofitted with a 14-foot deep Warren truss and Diagonal stays to reduce deck oscillations. The Warren Truss was removed in 2001 and replaced with hydraulic dampers and deck-edge fairings to maintain stability.