To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design

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Overview

How did a simple design error cause one of the great disasters of the 1980s -- the collapse of the walkways at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel? What made the graceful and innovative Tacoma Narrows Bridge twist apart in a mild wind in 1940? How did an oversized waterlily inspire the magnificent Crystal Palace, the crowning achievement of Victorian architecture and engineering? These are some of the failures and successes that Henry Petroski, author of the acclaimed The Pencil, examines in this engaging, ...
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Overview

How did a simple design error cause one of the great disasters of the 1980s -- the collapse of the walkways at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel? What made the graceful and innovative Tacoma Narrows Bridge twist apart in a mild wind in 1940? How did an oversized waterlily inspire the magnificent Crystal Palace, the crowning achievement of Victorian architecture and engineering? These are some of the failures and successes that Henry Petroski, author of the acclaimed The Pencil, examines in this engaging, wonderfully literate book. More than a series of fascinating case studies, To Engineer Is Human is a work that looks at our deepest notions of progress and perfection, tracing the fine connection between the quantifiable realm of science and the chaotic realities of everyday life.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Here is a gem of a book. Engineering professor Petroski raises the concept that past failure in engineering design is the handmaiden of future success and innovation. He discusses some monumental failureslike the collapse of elevated walkways in a Kansas City hoteland shows how they led engineers to advance their art to meet new needs. One chapter declares, ``Falling Down Is Part of Growing Up.'' His examples are mostly the honest-mistake kind, and not the sloppy design and testing, for instance, that results in recalls of new autos. But in marvelously clear prose, he gives valuable insight into the limits of engineering and its practitioners. A fine book for general and history-of-technology collections alike. Daniel LaRossa, Connetquot P.L., Bohemia, N.Y.
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Examines our deepest notions of progress and perfection, tracing the fine connection between the quantifiable realm of science and the chaotic realities of everyday life. "Serious, amusing, probing, sometimes frightening & always literate."-- L.A. Times. B&W illus.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679734161
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/1992
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 183,862
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface vii
1 Being Human 1
2 Falling Down is Part of Growing up 11
3 Lessons From Play; Lessons From Life Appendix: "The Deacon's Masterpiece," 35
4 Engineering as Hypothesis 40
5 Success is Foreseeing Failure 53
6 Design is Getting From Here to There 64
7 Design as Revision 75
8 Accidents Waiting to Happen 85
9 Safety in Numbers 98
10 When Cracks Become Breakthroughs 107
11 Of Bus Frames and Knife Blades 122
12 Interlude: The Success Story of the Crystal Palace 136
13 The Ups and Downs of Bridges 158
14 Forensic Engineering and Engineering Fiction 172
15 From Slide Rule to Computer: Forgetting How it Used to be Done 189
16 Connoisseurs of Chaos 204
17 The Limits of Design 216
Afterword 229
Bibliography 233
Index 245
List of Illustrations
I. Cartoons illustrating public concern over engineering failures
II. Models of the ubiquitous cantilever beam
III. The Brooklyn Bridge: Anticipating failure by the engineer and by the layman
IV. The Crystal Palace: Testing the galleries and finding them sound
V. The Crystal Palace and two of its modern imitators
VI. Suspension bridges: The Tacoma Narrows and after
VII. The Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkways collapse
VIII. The Mianus River Bridge collapse and its aftermath
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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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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 18, 2012

    Not too concrete in analyzing steel

    The most interesting thing about the book is the cover (a famous photograph of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsing in the wind in 1940). But then all it really amounts to is 232 pages of defensiveness, repeating over and over that failure is just a part of life and experimentation and if we don't want to stagnate we have to expect cracks and collapses, so don't blame the hapless engineer for trying to forward human achievement. Yes, engineers and designers can sometimes be the scapegoats for failures beyond their control, but he makes a weak case and uses this argument to eclipse the real causes and analyses of structural failure. The author cites very few actual examples, analizes the same few examples over and over, and his one or two attempts at discussing novel failures--such as cracks in a set of kitchen knives--go nowhere since it's pure speculation, with no actual research. What's most glaring is his almost complete neglect for the basic role of cost-cutting measures in leading businesses to ignore testing, quality control, maintenance, and basic oversight, putting profits before safety, an essential component he barely touches. In a book supposedly written for the lay person the illustrations, which are critical for understanding the examples he refers to, are few and far between. Some of the major examples he cites, such as the collapse of the Hartford Civic Center roof or the John Hancock building windows failure in Boston, aren't illustrated at all. And for a mostly polemical work there are surprising inconsistencies--in the last chapter he says that that exposing engineering failure are a credit to the profession, only to cite on the next page an engineering conference on structural failure that refused to publish any results. It's an interesting premise, but he goes nowhere (or rather in circles) with it. For a more in-depth and concrete (no pun intended) analysis go to Mario Salvadori, Why Buildings Fall Down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2005

    A well written description of engineering

    I thought this book was well written and a pleasure to read. I felt it would be a great book to explain to non-engineers in laymen's terms what engineers have to deal with. Engineers in all fields must push the technological envelope and manage risk. This book describes the struggles and why they exist.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2004

    Great selection

    This book is a great book on engineering philosophy and the true role of failure in engineering. As in real life, this book points out that we don't learn much from successes, but gain a lot of useful information in our failures that prevent the catastophes from happening again. This is not a mathematical engineering reference book. It is a book that states that when you innovate, mistakes will happen and we must learn from them. Though a little dated, its concepts apply to Challenger, Columbia, and even 9-11 (from the viewpoint of 'why did these happen and how can we keep them from happening again.') I being a recent engineering graduate found it very interesting and read it cover to cover.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2002

    Engenering?

    Although this book was well written it seemed to be more of a bio. of engenerring than a useful source.

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    Posted December 10, 2009

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    Posted November 4, 2008

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    Posted December 3, 2009

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    Posted July 20, 2009

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