Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America

Overview

Petroski reveals the science and engineering--not to mention the politics, egotism, and sheer magic--behind America's great bridges, particularly those constructed during the great bridge-building era starting in the 1870s and continuing through the 1930s. It is the story of the men and women who built the St. Louis, the George Washington, and the Golden Gate bridges, drawing not only on their mastery of numbers but on their gifts for persuasion and self-promotion. It is an account of triumphs and ignominious ...
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Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America

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Overview

Petroski reveals the science and engineering--not to mention the politics, egotism, and sheer magic--behind America's great bridges, particularly those constructed during the great bridge-building era starting in the 1870s and continuing through the 1930s. It is the story of the men and women who built the St. Louis, the George Washington, and the Golden Gate bridges, drawing not only on their mastery of numbers but on their gifts for persuasion and self-promotion. It is an account of triumphs and ignominious disasters (including the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which literally twisted itself apart in a high wind). And throughout this grandly engaging book, Petroski lets us see how bridges became the "symbols and souls" of our civilization, as well as testaments to their builders' vision, ingenuity, and perseverance.

"Seamlessly linked...With astonishing scope and generosity of view, Mr. Petroski places the tradition of American bridge-building in perspective."--New York Times Book Review

Petroski has already initiated readers into the hidden mysteries of such everyday artifacts as the lead pencil, the paper clip, the zipper, and Post-it notes. Now, he makes a considerable jump in scale in order to contemplate those "dry paths" across the rivers and inlets of our cities and countrysides--those eminently practical yet strikingly beautiful edifices that persist in taking our collective breath away--bridges. 131 illustrations.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Focusing on five engineers and their creations, Petroski looks at the great bridge-building era that spanned from the 1870s to the 1930s. Nov.
Library Journal
Petroski, a civil engineering professor and author of The Pencil LJ 3/1/90 and The Evolution of Useful Things LJ 12/92, is one of the better scientist-writers around, and this book is in several ways his best. By focusing on a half-dozen bridge engineers who did epochal work, he manages to capture something of what it is about bridge building that inspires passion and dedication from the engineers who design, build, and study them. Wisely, the Brooklyn Bridge is not a focus here, having been covered well by David McCullough The Great Bridge, S. & S., 1983; instead, we learn about the Hell Gate, the George Washington, the Eads in St. Louis, and, subtitle notwithstanding, the Firth of Forth and a few Canadian spans as well. We also learn about the men exclusively who dreamed them and made them real. One quibble: most of the engineering is elegantly explained, but once per chapter, some term shows up that-maddening-eludes every resource in a well-stocked library. Excellent for general collections and perfect for collections in the applied arts and sciences.-Mark L. Shelton, Worcester, Mass.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679760214
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/1996
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 479
  • Product dimensions: 5.21 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
Writing About Things

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by things large and small. I wanted to know what made my watch tick, my radio play, and my house stand. I wanted to know who invented the bottle cap and who designed the bridge. I guess from early on I wanted to be an engineer.

In Paperboy I have written about my teenage years, during which I delivered newspapers when I wasn't taking apart one of my mother's kitchen appliances. The newspaper itself is a thing of wonder for me, and I recall in some detail how we delivered it in the 1950s, folding it into a tight package and flipping it from a bicycle. My bike, a Schwinn, consumed a lot of my time and attention as a teenager, and it is a kind of character in my memoir. My family, friends, and teachers naturally also appear, but it is the attention to things as well as people that ties Paperboy to my other books.

Like a lot of writers, I write books to try to understand better how the world and the things in it work. My first book, To Engineer Is Human, was prompted by nonengineer friends asking me why so many technological accidents and failures were occurring. If engineers knew what they were doing, why did bridges and buildings fall down? It was a question that I had often asked myself, and I had no easy answer. Since the question was a nontechnical one, I wrote my book in nontechnical language. I am pleased that engineers and nonengineers find the book readable and helpful in making sense of the world of things and the people who make things.

There is a lot more to the world of things than just their breaking and failing, of course, and that prompted me to write another book for the general reader. The Pencil is about how a very familiar and seemingly simple object is really something that combines complex technology with a rather interesting history. The story of the pencil as an object has so many social and cultural connections with the world that it makes a perfect vehicle for conveying the general nature of design, engineering, manufacturing, and technology.

Pencils, like everything else, have changed over time, and I explored that idea further in The Evolution of Useful Things. This book is about invention and inventors and how and why they continue to make new things out of old. In it, I describe inventors and engineers as critics of technology, fault-finders who can't leave things alone. Their quest for perfection leads to very useful new things, such as paper clips, zippers, Post-t® notes, and a host of other inventions whose stories I tell in the book.

As an engineer, I am also interested in large things, and bridges are some of the largest things made. Engineers of Dreams is about the bridging of America, telling the stories of some of our greatest spans, including the George Washington, Golden Gate, Eads, and Mackinac bridges. It also tells the story of the engineers who designed and built these monumental structures, emphasizing that their personalities and the political and technical climate have a great deal to do with what bridges look like and how they work.

Engineers do more than build bridges, and I have told the stories of many of their other achievements in Remaking the World. Among the great projects described in this book are the original ferris wheel, Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, the Channel Tunnel, and the Petronas Towers, now the tallest buildings in the world. The stories of these world-class things are true adventures in engineering, and it does not take a degree in engineering to appreciate them or understand their making and their working.

As much as I like large and unique structures, I have continued to return to more commonplace ones in my writing. The Book on the Bookshelf had is origins one evening while I was reading in my study. As I looked up from my chair, I saw not the books on my bookshelves but the shelves themselves, and I wondered about the first bookshelves. My search for an answer led me to the discovery that our practice of storing books vertically on horizontal shelves with the spines facing outward was not at all the way it was originally done. In fact, our seemingly natural way of placing books on shelves had to be invented over the course of many centuries. Writing The Book on the Bookshelf reinforced my belief that there is a fascinating story behind even the simplest and most familiar of objects.

As long as there are things to wonder about, there are stories to be written about them. That makes me happy, because writing about things seems to be my thing. (Henry Petroski)

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