Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering



"Petroski has an inquisitive mind, and he is a fine writer. . . . [He] takes us on a lively tour of engineers, their creations and their necessary turns of mind."   —Los Angeles Times

From the Ferris wheel to the integrated circuit, feats of engineering have changed our environment in countless ways, big and small. In Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering, Duke University's Henry Petroski focuses on the big: Malaysia's 1,482-foot Petronas ...

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Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering

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"Petroski has an inquisitive mind, and he is a fine writer. . . . [He] takes us on a lively tour of engineers, their creations and their necessary turns of mind."   —Los Angeles Times

From the Ferris wheel to the integrated circuit, feats of engineering have changed our environment in countless ways, big and small. In Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering, Duke University's Henry Petroski focuses on the big: Malaysia's 1,482-foot Petronas Towers as well as the Panama Canal, a cut through the continental divide that required the excavation of 311 million cubic yards of earth.
        Remaking the World tells the stories behind the man-made wonders of the world, from squabbles over the naming of the Hoover Dam to the effects the Titanic disaster had on the engineering community of 1912. Here, too, are the stories of the personalities behind the wonders, from the jaunty Isambard Kingdom Brunel, designer of nineteenth-century transatlantic steamships, to Charles Steinmetz, oddball genius of the General Electric Company, whose office of preference was a battered twelve-foot canoe. Spirited and absorbing, Remaking the World is a celebration of the creative instinct and of the men and women whose inspirations have immeasurably improved our world.

"Petroski [is] America's poet laureate of technology. . . . Remaking the World is another fine book."   —Houston Chronicle

"Remaking the World really is an adventure in engineering."
—San Diego Union-Tribune

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Petroski, perhaps best known for The Pencil (LJ 3/1/90) and The Evolution of Useful Things (LJ 12/92), here collects columns written originally as essays for American Scientist, an engineering society publication. As such, the 18 selections, aimed at raising the reader's consciousness about how important and far-reaching engineering is to civilization and society, are accessible to a lay readers with an interest in technology and society. Several pieces are about particular engineers (e.g., Henry Robert, who wrote the Rules of Order, was first a military engineer) or engineering projects (the Channel Tunnel, the Ferris Wheel); others are provocative (the flaws of engineering software, the creep of technology). Always well written, though seldom off the "engineering is crucial!" soapbox, this is an excellent choice for general collections with a literate readership interested in technology and a good gift for the engineers on your Christmas list.
Mark L. Shelton, Univ. of Massachusetts Medical Ctr., Worcester
Thomas R. DeGregori
Another fine book [by] America's poet laureate of technology...Petroski's writing is always fascinating. -- Thomas R. DeGregori, Houston Chronicle
Christine Larson
The book's real charm lies in the countless anecdotes and bits of historic and engineering trivia that pepper each essay, rich details guaranteed to stay with you...Petroski's plain-English summaries of engineering fundamentals make this a rewarding read for both working engineers and armchair inventors. -- Christine Larson, Forbes
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375700248
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/28/1998
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 608,819
  • Product dimensions: 5.16 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University, where he also serves as chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The author of seven previous books, he has received grants from the National Science Foundation and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Humanities Center.

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Table of Contents


Images of an Engineer
Alfred Nobel’s Prizes
Henry Martyn Robert
James Nasmyth
On the Backs of Envelopes
Good Drawings and Bad Dreams
Failed Promises
In Context
Men and Women of Progress
Soil Mechanics
Is Technology Wired?
Harnessing Steam
The Great Eastern
Driven by Economics
The Panama Canal
The Ferris Wheel
Hoover Dam
The Channel Tunnel
The Petronas Towers

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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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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2006

    A Literary Disaster

    Henry petroski¿s Remaking the World is one of the most poorly-written books I have come across in years. The author purports to regale the reader with ¿adventures in engineering,¿ yet the few actual case histories of engineering projects are presented almost as afterthoughts. The first third of the book is devoted to the Engineer¿s thought process, supposedly a mysterious and arcane pursuit far beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. We are led to believe that it is almost superhuman to actually lose sleep over an engineering problem, and that only another engineer can even begin to comprehend the complexities of the engineer¿s magnificent mind. In fact engineering is largely the practical application of common sense, tempered by extensive training and strong understanding of underlying theory. We are then led on a tour of some of the engineering marvels of the past century, including Ferris¿ great Wheel, the Panama Canal, and the Petronas towers. However, each short vignette falls short of the heroic level the book repeatedly attempts and fails to reach. The discussion of the Ferris Wheel concludes that the only unique factor raising the Wheel to greatness is its sheer size, but the author neglects to even mention its diameter. The chapter on the Hoover Dam discusses at length the cross-sectional structure of the dam, invisible from photographs, but fails to provide a single sketch. The chapter on Soil Mechanics is interpolated between a discussion of the painting ¿Men of Progress¿ and a section entitled ¿Is Technology Wired.¿ There is no purpose to its placement, or even to its existence. It remains, like much of the book, a story in search of a purpose. The final chapter of the book is a discussion of the construction of the Petronas Towers. While the chapter itself is on topic and addresses the sociopolitical context of the Towers¿ construction, it concludes the book abruptly, leaving the reader expecting some sort of final chapter tying the various stories together. In sum, this book is poorly organized, poorly written and totally lacking in overall theme. One feels a certain pity for the students of Civil Engineering unfortunate enough to have been subjected to Professor Petroski¿s lecture courses.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted October 27, 2008

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    Posted March 25, 2011

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