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The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to Be as They Are

Overview

   How did the table fork acquire a fourth tine?  What advantage does the Phillips-head screw have over its single-grooved predecessor? Why does the paper clip look the way it does? What makes Scotch tape Scotch?

   In this delightful book Henry, Petroski takes a microscopic look at artifacts that most of us count on but rarely contemplate, including such icons of the everyday as pins, Post-its, and fast-food "clamshell" containers.  At the same time, he offers a convincing new theory of technological

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The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are.

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Overview

   How did the table fork acquire a fourth tine?  What advantage does the Phillips-head screw have over its single-grooved predecessor? Why does the paper clip look the way it does? What makes Scotch tape Scotch?

   In this delightful book Henry, Petroski takes a microscopic look at artifacts that most of us count on but rarely contemplate, including such icons of the everyday as pins, Post-its, and fast-food "clamshell" containers.  At the same time, he offers a convincing new theory of technological innovation as a response to the perceived failures of existing products—suggesting that irritation, and not necessity, is the mother of invention.

In his first book since The Pencil, Petroski looks with affection and awe at how everyday artifacts--from forks and pins to paper clips and zippers--came to be as they are. A mind-opening experience that is fun to read.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A celebration of inventiveness...By cataloging the clutter of our desks, closets, and workbenches, and giving them a human history, Petroski makes us feel more at home in our homes."- Newsweek

"Petroski is a valuable resource—an engineer who examines the simplest, most ubiquitous tools in our live with an appraising eye."- Washington Post Book World

"Mr. Petroski's case histories delightfully illustrate his thesis... You never know when you will turn a page and find some tiny corner of your mind enlightened."- The New York Times

"Petroski has an eye for the mundane that distracts and delights... [His] wealth of literary and cultural references runs from Aristotle... to Russell Baker... The book has substance."- Newsday

Library Journal
For armchair inventors or those who are curious about the way things work, this book offers hours of delight. Petroski (engineering, Duke Univ.) provides an intricate look, in lay reader's terms, at the technology and basic rationale behind a number of items we often take for granted. The list is comprehensive: kitchen utensils, zippers, tools, paper clips, fast-food packaging, and more. The text is far from a recital of mere facts. Petroski's anecdotes and stories about individual designers and inventors are told with warm regard. Petroski also provides illuminating thoughts on the theoretical, historical, and cultural frameworks that influenced these creations. Although this book will appeal to a somewhat specialized audience, many general readers will find it fascinating and educational. For circulating libraries.-- Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, N.J.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679740391
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/28/1994
  • Edition description: 1st Vintage Books Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 219,077
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.67 (d)

Meet the Author

Henry Petroski is the Aleksander S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University. He is the author of more than ten books.

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Table of Contents

Preface
1 How the Fork Got Its Tines 3
2 Form Follows Failure 22
3 Inventors as Critics 34
4 From Pins to Paper Clips 51
5 Little Things Can Mean a Lot 78
6 Stick Before Zip 92
7 Tools Make Tools 114
8 Patterns of Proliferation 130
9 Domestic Fashion and Industrial Design 154
10 The Power of Precedent 171
11 Closure Before Opening 185
12 Big Bucks from Small Change 209
13 When Good Is Better Than Best 220
14 Always Room for Improvement 237
Notes 253
Bibliography 265
List of Illustrations 275
Index 277
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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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  • Posted September 29, 2011

    Little things make a big difference

    Fascinating insights on how small details of everyday things develop.

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    Posted November 19, 2009

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