To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure

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Overview

When planes crash, bridges collapse, and automobile gas tanks explode, we are quick to blame poor design. But Henry Petroski says we must look beyond design for causes and corrections. Known for his masterly explanations of engineering successes and failures, Petroski here takes his analysis a step further, to consider the larger context in which accidents occur.

In To Forgive Design he surveys some of the most infamous failures of our time, from the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse and the toppling of a massive Shanghai apartment building in 2009 to Boston's prolonged Big Dig and the 2010 Gulf oil spill. These avoidable disasters reveal the interdependency of people and machines within systems whose complex behavior was undreamt of by their designers, until it was too late. Petroski shows that even the simplest technology is embedded in cultural and socioeconomic constraints, complications, and contradictions.

Failure to imagine the possibility of failure is the most profound mistake engineers can make. Software developers realized this early on and looked outside their young field, to structural engineering, as they sought a historical perspective to help them identify their own potential mistakes. By explaining the interconnectedness of technology and culture and the dangers that can emerge from complexity, Petroski demonstrates that we would all do well to follow their lead.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"From ancient to modern times, the size of ships, the weight of obelisks, the height of cathedrals, the span of bridges…and the limits of everything have been defined, at least temporarily, by failure," Petroski writes in the first chapter of this sequel to 1992's To Engineer is Human. Petroski, Professor of Civil Engineering and History at Duke University, uses relatable metaphors to discuss concepts such as metal fatigue and how buildings, bridges, and roads deteriorate, in addition to the lengths engineers have gone to in an effort to mitigate catastrophe. Though his focus here is primarily on bridges, Petroski extends his analysis to include the sinking of the Titanic, the mid-flight explosion of TWA Flight 800, the Challenger tragedy, the Y2K computer programming crisis, and the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Each has its own unique set of human, mechanical, and engineering failures, and Petroski does a terrific job of identifying and communicating not only what went wrong, but what was learned from the failure and how that knowledge has since been put into practice. Fellow engineers and armchair scientists will get the most out of the book, but even the layman will find Petroski's study to be accessible, informative, and interesting. Photos. (Mar.)
Nature
When a plane crashes or a bridge collapses, faulty engineering is the usual suspect. But in seeking the roots of failure, we should look beyond design, says engineer Henry Petroski. We must probe the political and economic imperatives that shape purposes and use. In this follow-up to his influential To Engineer is Human, Petroski argues that accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are the result of faults as much in "human machinery" as in mechanical devices. He praises software developers for learning from structural engineering about how to report and analyze mishaps.
New Scientist

A rewarding read.
— Jonathon Keats

Salon

By critically examining the interdependency of people and machines related to bridge collapses, airplane crashes and space shuttle failures, Petroski discovers that understanding failure is the only way to bring successful design and engineering into the future.
— Megan Wood

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Nonengineers needn't worry that the book will be too dense with details; Petroski makes the science easily understandable...[This is] a book that satisfactorily explains why our determination to push the boundaries guarantees both failure and triumph.
— James F. Sweeney

Wall Street Journal

[A] fascinating and occasionally unnerving history of engineering failures...After reading this book, one might be tempted never to venture across a bridge again. But of course that would miss Petroski's goal: to show how engineers learn from failure and improve their designs...For those who enjoy reading about girders and trusses, To Forgive Design is, yes, riveting...[Petroski] amply shows the wisdom of the proverb that failure is a good teacher. Even a collapsed bridge leads somewhere.
— Matt Ridley

The Independent

Engineering is interesting when it works, but much more compelling when it doesn't. Petroski may be one of his profession's establishment figures, but his key finding is highly critical: because most engineers don't know much about the history of engineering, complacency and gee-whizz design software is likely to foment a fairly regular incidence of potentially catastrophic structural failures...Much of the information will be of great interest to engineers and designers...The most brilliantly explained engineering failure concerns the ocean-bed blowout involving the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010. Petroski's exposition is immensely detailed and benefits from being linear in its narrative. This section of the book is exemplary in its remorseless exfoliation of the technical and commercial reasons for the incident.
— Jay Merrick

Barron’s

Americans are encouraged to believe that failure is not an option, but author Henry Petroski regards it as just about inevitable. A professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, Petroski began his writing career with To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, an influential work that deals with mechanical and engineering failures. This huge sequel devotes much more attention to the interplay between human beings, machines, buildings and disaster. It's exhaustive, relentless, often exhilarating—and given its technical nature, surprisingly readable...If you're already a bit phobic about flying in a plane, crossing a suspension bridge, or even driving a car, To Forgive Design is probably not for you...Petroski chronicles the story of failure with a measure of affection reminiscent of a biographer of Attila the Hun who develops a grudging fondness for his subject. But whether or not the latter had redeeming qualities, the former surely does: Failure reminds us to avoid the sin of pride. I thoroughly enjoyed To Forgive Design, even down to the gloomy quote from the famously gloomy writer Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
— Joe Queenan

New York Times

A book that is at once an absorbing love letter to engineering and a paean to its breakdowns… This book is a litany of failure, including falling concrete in the Big Dig in Boston, the loss of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, the rupture of New Orleans levees, collapsing buildings in the Haitian earthquake, the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the sinking of the Titanic, the metal fatigue that doomed 1950s-era de Havilland Comet jets—and swaying, crumpling bridges from Britain to Cambodia… [Readers will encounter] a moving discussion of the responsibility of the engineer to the public and the ways young engineers can be helped to grasp them.
— Cornelia Dean

Choice

For more than two decades, Petroski has been delighting and educating readers with tales of engineering failures and how they can lead to safer technology...Always technically well informed and gifted with a comfortable, engaging storytelling style, Petroski shows readers how engineering design is a compromise between the ideal of perfect safety and the practicalities of limited resources. The lesson is that engineering makes advances through failure, but only if the lessons that failure teaches are applied to future projects…To Forgive Design succeeds in conveying Petroski's message in a way that can be appreciated by the general reader and put to practical use by engineering students of all levels.
— K. D. Stephan

Los Angeles Review of Books

To Forgive Design remains a largely accessible, important contribution to the growing library of failure.
— Colin Dickey

New Scientist - Jonathon Keats
A rewarding read.
Salon - Megan Wood
By critically examining the interdependency of people and machines related to bridge collapses, airplane crashes and space shuttle failures, Petroski discovers that understanding failure is the only way to bring successful design and engineering into the future.
Cleveland Plain Dealer - James F. Sweeney
Nonengineers needn't worry that the book will be too dense with details; Petroski makes the science easily understandable...[This is] a book that satisfactorily explains why our determination to push the boundaries guarantees both failure and triumph.
Wall Street Journal - Matt Ridley
[A] fascinating and occasionally unnerving history of engineering failures...After reading this book, one might be tempted never to venture across a bridge again. But of course that would miss Petroski's goal: to show how engineers learn from failure and improve their designs...For those who enjoy reading about girders and trusses, To Forgive Design is, yes, riveting...[Petroski] amply shows the wisdom of the proverb that failure is a good teacher. Even a collapsed bridge leads somewhere.
The Independent - Jay Merrick
Engineering is interesting when it works, but much more compelling when it doesn't. Petroski may be one of his profession's establishment figures, but his key finding is highly critical: because most engineers don't know much about the history of engineering, complacency and gee-whizz design software is likely to foment a fairly regular incidence of potentially catastrophic structural failures...Much of the information will be of great interest to engineers and designers...The most brilliantly explained engineering failure concerns the ocean-bed blowout involving the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010. Petroski's exposition is immensely detailed and benefits from being linear in its narrative. This section of the book is exemplary in its remorseless exfoliation of the technical and commercial reasons for the incident.
Barron's - Joe Queenan
Americans are encouraged to believe that failure is not an option, but author Henry Petroski regards it as just about inevitable. A professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, Petroski began his writing career with To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, an influential work that deals with mechanical and engineering failures. This huge sequel devotes much more attention to the interplay between human beings, machines, buildings and disaster. It's exhaustive, relentless, often exhilarating—and given its technical nature, surprisingly readable...If you're already a bit phobic about flying in a plane, crossing a suspension bridge, or even driving a car, To Forgive Design is probably not for you...Petroski chronicles the story of failure with a measure of affection reminiscent of a biographer of Attila the Hun who develops a grudging fondness for his subject. But whether or not the latter had redeeming qualities, the former surely does: Failure reminds us to avoid the sin of pride. I thoroughly enjoyed To Forgive Design, even down to the gloomy quote from the famously gloomy writer Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
New York Times - Cornelia Dean
A book that is at once an absorbing love letter to engineering and a paean to its breakdowns… This book is a litany of failure, including falling concrete in the Big Dig in Boston, the loss of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, the rupture of New Orleans levees, collapsing buildings in the Haitian earthquake, the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the sinking of the Titanic, the metal fatigue that doomed 1950s-era de Havilland Comet jets—and swaying, crumpling bridges from Britain to Cambodia… [Readers will encounter] a moving discussion of the responsibility of the engineer to the public and the ways young engineers can be helped to grasp them.
Choice - K. D. Stephan
For more than two decades, Petroski has been delighting and educating readers with tales of engineering failures and how they can lead to safer technology...Always technically well informed and gifted with a comfortable, engaging storytelling style, Petroski shows readers how engineering design is a compromise between the ideal of perfect safety and the practicalities of limited resources. The lesson is that engineering makes advances through failure, but only if the lessons that failure teaches are applied to future projects…To Forgive Design succeeds in conveying Petroski's message in a way that can be appreciated by the general reader and put to practical use by engineering students of all levels.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Colin Dickey
To Forgive Design remains a largely accessible, important contribution to the growing library of failure.
Literary Review - Colin McSwiggen
Mustering a truly staggering array of examples of past engineering failures, Petroski makes the case that failure is a necessary component of technological development, and that structures, machines and other engineered devices do not exist in isolation, but instead are designed and used within a tangle of competing constraints and unpredictable scenarios...At his best, Petroski is a compelling storyteller, and his recounting of past disasters and near-disasters can be fascinating. In addition to several detailed but well-paced narratives of familiar failures such as the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the book contains a great deal of intriguing arcana...Petroski's greatest asset as a writer is his impressive historical erudition. He seems to have an infinite file of meticulously detailed case studies that illustrate his points, and any thought of just how long he must have spent researching inspires mild fear. He has written prolifically for nearly three decades on the topic of failure in engineering, and there is no doubt whatsoever that he knows what he's talking about...I would sincerely recommend To Forgive Design to anyone with a particular interest in historical engineering fiascos.
New York Review of Books - Bill McKibben
[An] engaging book...Reading these pages reminds us of how many spectacular failures have occupied the news pages for a week or two in our lifetimes...If Petroski's account proves anything, it's that the forces of the real world may eventually prevail on even the mightiest structures.
Nature
When a plane crashes or a bridge collapses, faulty engineering is the usual suspect. But in seeking the roots of failure, we should look beyond design, says engineer Henry Petroski. We must probe the political and economic imperatives that shape purposes and use. In this follow-up to his influential To Engineer is Human, Petroski argues that accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are the result of faults as much in "human machinery" as in mechanical devices. He praises software developers for learning from structural engineering about how to report and analyze mishaps.
Library Journal
Petroski (engineering & history, Duke Univ.) follows up his first book, To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, with this examination of human failure. In the previous title, he primarily considered mechanical and structural failures. Here, he looks not only at how people contribute to the failure of engineering designs but also at how analyzing those failures can improve subsequent models. He considers many different types of failures, from several infamous bridge collapses to carefully designed intentional failures, which are engineered specifically to prevent greater failures. In each case, Petroski goes beyond an explanation of the mechanical failure itself to point out how humans created these and other problems through systemic mistakes. VERDICT A regular columnist for American Scientist, ASEE Prism, and Design News, Petroski is well versed in communicating engineering topics to an educated lay audience. This accessible book will appeal to readers interested in design, architecture, and engineering—and particularly to those who enjoyed Why Buildings Fall Down.—Carla H. Lee, Univ. of Virginia Lib., Charlottesville
Kirkus Reviews
Examination of the implications and consequences of engineering failures. "Near and outright failures have always been part of the human endeavor known as engineering and its collective achievements known as technology," writes Petroski (Civil Engineering and History/Duke Univ.; An Engineer's Alphabet, 2011, etc.) at the start of this authoritative text about the interrelationship between success and failure in the engineering enterprise. The limits of everything structural--height, weight, span, reach, range and capacity--are (at least temporarily) defined by failure. Some real-world failures can be traced to design errors, but Petroski's forensic analyses just as often uncover neglected or misused designs. While engineers are generally responsible for conceiving, evaluating, comparing and recommending a structure's concept, "[q]uestions relating to cost, risk, and other economic, social, and political considerations can dominate the decision-making process and push to the background technical details on which a project's ultimate success or failure may truly depend." Though such abuses and can make for some hot-under-the-collar reading, Petroski remains cool, his delivery relaxed, even when he presents compelling evidence of the ruinous disconnect between engineers and managers. Though he delves into the grit of engineering--risk assessment, the mechanics of bridge making, the role of controlled failure, the geometrical challenges of building cranes--Petroski's most gripping passages are his Sherlockian dissections of engineering fiascos and the importance of learning from the vast archive of forensic analyses. Then he draws back to a synthesis of all the case studies, which "will eventually bring us to shift from a success-reinforced paradigm to a failure-averse one." A learned inquisition into engineering failures, and how we often fail again by ignoring them.
The New York Times
…an absorbing love letter to engineering and a paean to its breakdowns.
—Cornelia Dean
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674065840
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/30/2012
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 466,956
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.30 (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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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Five: A Repeating Problem


Regardless of their professional roots, dentists and engineers alike have to know a good deal about mechanics, materials, and maintenance. They have to understand the forces at play on a bridge, whether it be between two sound teeth or between two soft river banks. Dentists and engineers have to understand the holding strength of amalgams and epoxies and of steel and concrete. And they have to understand the importance of limiting deterioration, whether it takes the form of practicing prophylaxis to control dental caries or of painting steel to prevent corrosion. But the growth of decay and corrosion are insidious. Thus it is perhaps with regard to the promotion of regular checkups that dentistry has the most to offer engineering, in the sense that it makes evident even to the nontechnical lay person how important regular and thorough examinations and inspections are to insure the health of our oral infrastructure and, by analogy, our national infrastructure. In a routine dental checkup, the structures in our mouth are gone over with picks and probes to detect the small irregularities that can be harbingers of worse to come, to find the imperfections that can lead to cracks and the cracks that can lead to spontaneous fractures, to locate and fill cavities that left unchecked can threaten an entire tooth. Every year or so, x-rays are taken, and suspicious areas compared with benchmark images from an earlier visit. Given that we all have—or at least once had—teeth, we know the importance of regular dental examinations and prophylactic care.

Indeed, everyone knows, perhaps by having learned the hard way, that neglecting one’s teeth can be a sure way to their deteriorating beyond repair. We seem not yet to have fully learned that the same applies to our bridges, roads, and other public works. But going to the dentist can get us thinking about a lot more than our teeth. The experience can remind us of knowledge and lessons about good engineering practice that are forgotten at our peril. When we go to the dentist with a broken tooth, we are likely to learn that the tooth probably had had a crack in it. The crack may have gotten started quite a while back, maybe when a sharp blow from a mating tooth nicked the enamel but so slightly that even a dentist could not easily detect it. Over time, as we chomped on three meals a day, plus snacks, a little crack grew ever so slowly into a larger one. In mechanical terms, the forces imparted to the tooth in the course of chewing alternately opened and closed the crack and in the process extended it ever so slowly further into the tooth. As long as we did not chomp our teeth together too suddenly or use them as if they were a pair of pliers, the crack was stable and the tooth was safe. Eventually, however, the crack would reach a point where little force was required to get it to fast forward like a crack in a window pane tapped ever so gently with maybe just a firm finger.

Even perfect teeth are subject to repeated thermal stresses induced by hot and cold liquids and to repeated impacts due to the nature of eating and chewing food, forces sometimes supplemented by the grinding that takes place in some of us while we sleep. Such actions also can cause hairline cracks to start and grow over time, thus weakening a tooth and setting it up for breaking when it comes down upon an unexpected small piece of bone in a hamburger or part of a shell in an oyster stew. However started, progressed, and ended, this is the process of fatigue-crack initiation, growth, and fracture, something engineers have to take into account when designing bridges and roads over which traffic repeatedly bumps and bounces. Over seasons of freezing and thawing temperatures, and years of being chewed up by passing cars and trucks, our concrete and asphalt roads develop cracks that grow into gaps and into the cavities known as potholes.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 By Way of Concrete Examples 1

2 Things Happen 26

3 Designed to Fail 48

4 Mechanics of Failure 81

5 A Repeating Problem 107

6 The Old and the New 128

7 Searching for a Cause 150

8 The Obligation of an Engineer 175

9 Before, during, and after the Fall 199

10 Legal Matters 223

11 Back-Seat Designers 241

12 Houston, You Have a Problem 270

13 Without a Leg to Stand On 302

14 History and Failure 327

Notes 363

Illustrations 395

Index 397

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