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Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing

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Overview

Henry Petroski's previous bestsellers have delighted readers with intriguing stories about the engineering marvels around us, from the lowly pencil to the soaring suspension bridge. In this book, Petroski delves deeper into the mystery of invention, to explore what everyday artifacts and sophisticated networks can reveal about the way engineers solve problems.

Engineering entails more than knowing the way things work. What do economics and ecology, aesthetics and ethics, have to do with the shape of a paper clip, the tab of a beverage can, the cabin design of a turbojet, or the course of a river? How do the idiosyncrasies of individual engineers, companies, and communities leave their mark on projects from Velcro® to fax machines to waterworks?Invention by Design offers an insider's look at these political and cultural dimensions of design and development, production and construction.

Readers unfamiliar with engineering will find Petroski's enthusiasm contagious, whether the topic is the genesis of the Ziploc baggie or the averted collapse of Manhattan's sleekest skyscraper. And those who inhabit the world of engineering will discover insights to challenge their customary perspective, whether their work involves failure analysis, systems design, or public relations. Written with the flair that readers have come to expect from his books, Invention by Design reaffirms Petroski as the master explicator of the principles and processes that turn thoughts into the many things that define our made world.

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Editorial Reviews

Civilization

If in Invention by Design Henry Petroski doesn't quite endow engineers with all the nobility and cachet of the artist, he does make the products of their work—the beer cans from which we drink, the airplanes in which we fly—the interesting things they truly are. Each of these—along with the paper clip, pencil, zipper, fax machine, water-supply system, bridge and skyscraper—Petroski honors with a heavily illustrated chapter, each a glimpse into the workings of engineering design...[Petroski] tells a good story.
— Robert Kanigal

Engineering Designer

This is a delightful book to read. Ostensibly, written for intelligent laypersons to give some understanding of how we got to the technological world in which we now live, it will probably be read and enjoyed as much or even more by engineering and product designers.
— Peter J. Booker

Archis [The Netherlands]

Petroski light-heartedly though soundly exposes the so-called engineer's thinking, which from its position within the field of science and technology is more concerned with designing than with calculating. The book makes elegant connections between the design features of a variety of "engineering products." These are discussed in the most natural-seeming of series; from paper clip, pencil and zipper, via problems of water and air transport, to designs for bridges and skyscrapers. The reader is, as it were, trained to be an inquisitive designer. Scattered throughout the book are brief mental exercises in the shape of entertaining questions regarding designed details of the real world (Why are ashtrays in aircraft glued shut? What structural precautions need to be taken if a complete oil platform, whose length is greater than the height of the highest building in the world, is to be moved from a horizontal to a vertical position?) This arrangement explains why the book is required reading for many a student. But Petroski also achieves the necessary depth whenever he explains in detail the principles and processes which lie behind existing and widely known products...[Invention by Design] does comprise an outstanding source of knowledge and inspiration as much about history as about design approaches.

— Marc Maurer

ASEE Prism

Invention by Design should be required reading for all present and future engineers.
— Dennis J. Fallon

Cleveland Plain Dealer

People who think engineering is a bore have never read anything by Henry Petroski. A professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, Petroski is notable for writing an entire book about pencils...and making the whole 400 pages completely fascinating. His newest book, which proclaims itself as showing 'how engineers get from thought to thing,' is equally interesting...Invention by Design uses 10 short case studies to introduce some of the discipline's salient principles and techniques...Readers end up with a wonderful accumulation of fun facts...Such details do more than entertain. They show how engineers work and emphasize how engineers must go beyond design and analysis to consider the risks and consequences of a product's failure, ensure quality control, minimize costs and satisfy the dictates of aesthetics, politics and social attitudes.

— John R. Alden

Booklist

[A] lucid and lively book...Whether designing something as small as a pencil or as large as the World Trade Center, successful engineers must not only devise new technology but also find a way to situate that technology within the existing economic, social, and ecological order. Every case study includes well-chosen pictures and schematic drawings to clarify how inventors resolve technical difficulties, and the carefully researched text explains how they make their new creations economically feasible and socially acceptable. Students of technology will delight in one part of the book, cultural historians in another, but both groups will praise the author.

— Bryce Christensen

Nature

The technical aspects of [Petroski's] stories are very appealing. To see a pencil as a cantilever beam or a beverage can as a pressure vessel is to feel the power of engineering insight. The technical aspects of [Petroski's] stories are very appealing. To see a pencil as a cantilever beam or a beverage can as a pressure vessel is to feel the power of engineering insight.
— David Jones

Civilization - Robert Kanigal
If in Invention by Design Henry Petroski doesn't quite endow engineers with all the nobility and cachet of the artist, he does make the products of their work--the beer cans from which we drink, the airplanes in which we fly--the interesting things they truly are. Each of these--along with the paper clip, pencil, zipper, fax machine, water-supply system, bridge and skyscraper--Petroski honors with a heavily illustrated chapter, each a glimpse into the workings of engineering design...[Petroski] tells a good story.
Engineering Designer - Peter J. Booker
This is a delightful book to read. Ostensibly, written for intelligent laypersons to give some understanding of how we got to the technological world in which we now live, it will probably be read and enjoyed as much or even more by engineering and product designers.
Archis [The Netherlands] - Marc Maurer
Petroski light-heartedly though soundly exposes the so-called engineer's thinking, which from its position within the field of science and technology is more concerned with designing than with calculating. The book makes elegant connections between the design features of a variety of "engineering products." These are discussed in the most natural-seeming of series; from paper clip, pencil and zipper, via problems of water and air transport, to designs for bridges and skyscrapers. The reader is, as it were, trained to be an inquisitive designer. Scattered throughout the book are brief mental exercises in the shape of entertaining questions regarding designed details of the real world (Why are ashtrays in aircraft glued shut? What structural precautions need to be taken if a complete oil platform, whose length is greater than the height of the highest building in the world, is to be moved from a horizontal to a vertical position?) This arrangement explains why the book is required reading for many a student. But Petroski also achieves the necessary depth whenever he explains in detail the principles and processes which lie behind existing and widely known products...[Invention by Design] does comprise an outstanding source of knowledge and inspiration as much about history as about design approaches.
ASEE Prism - Dennis J. Fallon
Invention by Design should be required reading for all present and future engineers.
Cleveland Plain Dealer - John R. Alden
People who think engineering is a bore have never read anything by Henry Petroski. A professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, Petroski is notable for writing an entire book about pencils...and making the whole 400 pages completely fascinating. His newest book, which proclaims itself as showing 'how engineers get from thought to thing,' is equally interesting...Invention by Design uses 10 short case studies to introduce some of the discipline's salient principles and techniques...Readers end up with a wonderful accumulation of fun facts...Such details do more than entertain. They show how engineers work and emphasize how engineers must go beyond design and analysis to consider the risks and consequences of a product's failure, ensure quality control, minimize costs and satisfy the dictates of aesthetics, politics and social attitudes.
Booklist - Bryce Christensen
[A] lucid and lively book...Whether designing something as small as a pencil or as large as the World Trade Center, successful engineers must not only devise new technology but also find a way to situate that technology within the existing economic, social, and ecological order. Every case study includes well-chosen pictures and schematic drawings to clarify how inventors resolve technical difficulties, and the carefully researched text explains how they make their new creations economically feasible and socially acceptable. Students of technology will delight in one part of the book, cultural historians in another, but both groups will praise the author.
Donald A. Norman
Henry Petroski does it again: bringing engineering to life. Engineering design is a very human activity, with social and cultural factors playing as much a role as science and mechanics. Nobody tells the story better than Petroski, with his meticulously researched case histories of objects that range from the small and ordinary to the large and complex. Our understanding of design is, once again, made richer and more profound.
Norman R. Augustine
Magicians are famous for keeping their 'tricks' a secret. Inventors and engineers are often thought to have the same attitude about their often remarkable technological achievements. Ask a person on the street how zippers, pop-top aluminum cans, or fax machines work, and you're likely to get a shrug and an anguished admission: 'I don't even know how to program my VCR.' At last, the always enlightening--and entertaining--Henry Petroski explains many of the more confounding technological riddles of modern life in Invention by Design. This is a delightful book and a 'must read' for anyone who wants to know how the modern world got to be the way it is.
Hans Moravec
Whales and parrots host large, rapidly evolving vocal traditions. Beavers and termites construct elaborate artifacts. Humans alone combine these two facilities to rapidly evolve artifacts. Engineering may be the most uniquely human endeavor. Petroski's compelling new book raises our consciousness to this truth, with case studies ranging from the gripping story of paper clips to the elevating tale of skyscrapers. Also here is a hint of things to come, as our artifacts play an ever greater role in their own evolution.
Michael Graves
Through fascinating case histories, Henry Petroski has vividly depicted the qualitative side of engineering and in doing so has shown me that my work (especially in the area of product design) is often akin to engineering, while what engineers do is often also--no question about it--art. Though the problems that engineers and inventors set out to solve may be different from those of other design specialists, Invention by Design proves that the many design decisions in which engineers are involved are as heavily influenced by the intangibly aesthetic as by the purely functional. Mr. Petroski demonstrates in this well-rounded, accessible volume that great engineers, like all designers, are driven by the desire to improve the human condition, whatever the tools they use.
Nature - David Jones
The technical aspects of [Petroski's] stories are very appealing. To see a pencil as a cantilever beam or a beverage can as a pressure vessel is to feel the power of engineering insight. The technical aspects of [Petroski's] stories are very appealing. To see a pencil as a cantilever beam or a beverage can as a pressure vessel is to feel the power of engineering insight.
Robert Kanigel
If, in Invention by Design, Henry Petoski doesn't quite endow engineers with all the nobility and cachet of the artist, he does make the products of their work -- the beer cans from which we drink, the airplanes in which we fly -- the interesting things they truly are. Each of these Petroski honors with a heavily illustrated chapter, each a glimpse into the workings of engineering design. . . [Petroski] tells a good story. -- Civilization
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674463684
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/1998
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 193,195
  • Product dimensions: 6.15 (w) x 9.23 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University.
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Table of Contents

Preface

Introduction

Paper Clips and Design

Pencil Points and Analysis

Zippers and Development

Aluminum Cans and Failure

Facsimile and Networks

Airplanes and Computers

Water and Society

Bridges and Politics

Buildings and Systems

References and Further Reading

Illustration Credits

Index

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2014

    Invention by Design was a great informational book and I felt as

    Invention by Design was a great informational book and I felt as though it was written nicely. I was interested thoughout the book except I started to get bored in the middle of certain chapters. Although the vocabulary was difficult to comprehend at my personal level, I found this book great for people who think outside the box and are fasinated by how things work. (Taylor H.)

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2010

    Enlightening and Interesting

    Invention by Design was probably the most interesting science-related book I have ever read. When I first began reading it, I was afraid that it was going to be incredibly boring; but the more I read, the more I started to enjoy it. Petroski pointed out the things we often overlook or would never care to think about - like the uniformity of paper clips and the origin of the word "Velcro". Also, Petroski's reflective and at times humorous writing style makes the book even more pleasurable to read. The book is comprised of "chapters" - each one revealing surprising and interesting facts about a different invention. In addition to discussing various inventions, Petroski also explains all of the factors that go into engineering and inventing - I never knew that it took so much "trial-and-error" in engineering. In each of the inventions discussed in the novel, Petroski describes a pattern that inventors, intellectuals, scientists, and engineers go through each time a new product is created - they not only have to come up with an idea, but they have to make sure it works; and if it doesn't they have to go back and fix it until it works. Overall the book was very enlightening and fun to read. I don't consider myself a "science person", but this was an outstanding book. I recommend it to anyone who is curious about engineering and invention.

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  • Posted February 18, 2010

    The Best Invention book EVER Written!!

    Do you ever ask yourself who invented and how they invented paper clips? or zippers? or even Aluminum cans?

    Well..... in Invention by Design, Henry Petroski tells you everything you need to know. There are about 20 or more mini - biographies about the people who invented these items. The mini - biographies give an insight on why and how these items were built. There are so many details on the paper clip!

    The author uses diction that is commonly used and is not difficult to understand. He makes sure that everyone can read the book at all levels in brain development. Students will be amused with his unexpected sarcasm. Genenral readers will be content because all of the information keeps you interested and professionals wil enjoy the book because it puts them inside the inventors mind.
    The paper clip is so complicated in its making. Who would have ever known?
    Henry Petroski did great research and thorough at that. There are facts that only this book has. It is as though he was there.

    The book also discusses the politics about things being produced, such as bridges.

    There is also information about the machines that were invented to create the items so that they do not have to be created by hand which increases the amount of items produced. The machines helped industrialize cities and towns that make there lives off of certain items.

    Invention by Design is a great read. It is inspirational, it is amusing, and it is a great history lesson.

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  • Posted April 25, 2009

    This book is Awesome!!!!!!!

    Do you ever ask yourself about the things that we humans take for granted? Do you ever wonder how the paperclip got to be the perfect shape for holding paper? Well this is the book for you! This book is perfect for the rising engineer, inventor or enthusiast. It talks about the evolution of the perfect designs we have today like the paperclip, the tin can, the pencil, and many different types of bridges. Petroski doesn't just tell you who made them; the book is filled with blueprints of the machines, pictures, diagrams and more. When he talks about the pencil, he talks about the mistakes previously made and shows how those mistakes help make the new prototypes better. It also shows how much work goes into making little things like tin cans. The tried attempts, and the epic fails. It also helps people understand the formal thought process of engineering. Also do you like bridges, if so, there is a huge section filled with the processes of bridge making. Its filled with blueprints and biographies of people who make bridges like the golden gate, and the reasons for the crash of the Tacoma Narrows bridge. I can also serve as a guide to make your own models of these historic prototypes. If you like anything boring, then this book is certainly not for you. You'll never be able to put it down. Whatever the way, this book will certainly change the way you think about the simple designs we use every day.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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