Henry Petroski Essays

Science/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 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

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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