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Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing [Paperback]

Henry Petroski
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

28 Aug 1998
In this book, Petroski delves deeper into the mystery of invention, to explore what everyday artifacts and sophisticated networks can reveal about the way engineers solve problems. Engineering entails more than knowing the way things work. What do economics and ecology, aesthetics and ethics, have to do with the shape of a paper clip, the tab of a beverage can, the cabin design of a turbojet, or the course of a river? How do the idiosyncrasies of individual engineers, companies and communities leave their mark on projects from Velcro to fax machines to waterworks? "Invention by Design" offers an insider's look at these political and cultural dimensions of design and development, production and construction. Henry Petroski's previous books include: "To Engineer Is Human", which was developed into a BBC television documentary; "The Pencil": "The Evolution of Useful Things"; and "Engineers of Dreams".

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Product details

  • Paperback: 252 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; New Ed edition (28 Aug 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674463684
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674463684
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.6 x 1.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 21,990 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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If in Invention by Design Henry Petroski doesn't quite endow engineers with all the nobility and cachet of the artist, he does make the products of their work--the beer cans from which we drink, the airplanes in which we fly--the interesting things they truly are. Each of these--along with the paper clip, pencil, zipper, fax machine, water-supply system, bridge and skyscraper--Petroski honors with a heavily illustrated chapter, each a glimpse into the workings of engineering design...[Petroski] tells a good story. -- Robert Kanigal Civilization This is a delightful book to read. Ostensibly, written for intelligent laypersons to give some understanding of how we got to the technological world in which we now live, it will probably be read and enjoyed as much or even more by engineering and product designers. -- Peter J. Booker Engineering Designer Petroski light-heartedly though soundly exposes the so-called engineer's thinking, which from its position within the field of science and technology is more concerned with designing than with calculating. The book makes elegant connections between the design features of a variety of "engineering products." These are discussed in the most natural-seeming of series; from paper clip, pencil and zipper, via problems of water and air transport, to designs for bridges and skyscrapers. The reader is, as it were, trained to be an inquisitive designer. Scattered throughout the book are brief mental exercises in the shape of entertaining questions regarding designed details of the real world (Why are ashtrays in aircraft glued shut? What structural precautions need to be taken if a complete oil platform, whose length is greater than the height of the highest building in the world, is to be moved from a horizontal to a vertical position?) This arrangement explains why the book is required reading for many a student. But Petroski also achieves the necessary depth whenever he explains in detail the principles and processes which lie behind existing and widely known products...[Invention by Design] does comprise an outstanding source of knowledge and inspiration as much about history as about design approaches. -- Marc Maurer Archis [The Netherlands] Invention by Design should be required reading for all present and future engineers. -- Dennis J. Fallon ASEE Prism People who think engineering is a bore have never read anything by Henry Petroski. A professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, Petroski is notable for writing an entire book about pencils...and making the whole 400 pages completely fascinating. His newest book, which proclaims itself as showing 'how engineers get from thought to thing,' is equally interesting...Invention by Design uses 10 short case studies to introduce some of the discipline's salient principles and techniques...Readers end up with a wonderful accumulation of fun facts...Such details do more than entertain. They show how engineers work and emphasize how engineers must go beyond design and analysis to consider the risks and consequences of a product's failure, ensure quality control, minimize costs and satisfy the dictates of aesthetics, politics and social attitudes. -- John R. Alden Cleveland Plain Dealer [A] lucid and lively book...Whether designing something as small as a pencil or as large as the World Trade Center, successful engineers must not only devise new technology but also find a way to situate that technology within the existing economic, social, and ecological order. Every case study includes well-chosen pictures and schematic drawings to clarify how inventors resolve technical difficulties, and the carefully researched text explains how they make their new creations economically feasible and socially acceptable. Students of technology will delight in one part of the book, cultural historians in another, but both groups will praise the author. -- Bryce Christensen Booklist Petroski...has done much to make the nerdy world of engineering interesting and accessible to the reader. Here, he's after a difference audience, one interested in the philosophy and cultural study of the process of invention...This book is engaging...[It's] good reading for those interested in the gestalt of engineering design. Library Journal Petroski is, essentially, a cheerleader for civil engineers, who are at their most successful when their designs blend so completely into our environment that we forget about the magnificent achievements they represent. Here Petroski takes a look at the development of such things as pencils, zippers, paper clips, the fax machine, turbojet aircraft, suspension bridges, aluminum beverage cans, and the systems that heat and cool modern buildings...[A] pleasant, readable, and persuasive [book]. Kirkus Reviews The technical aspects of [Petroski's] stories are very appealing. To see a pencil as a cantilever beam or a beverage can as a pressure vessel is to feel the power of engineering insight. The technical aspects of [Petroski's] stories are very appealing. To see a pencil as a cantilever beam or a beverage can as a pressure vessel is to feel the power of engineering insight. -- David Jones Nature

About the Author

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly enjoyable read 24 Jan 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is written as a series of case studies and is a very interesting look at the work of Engineers and the challenges they face.

Whilst there is some technical knowledge needed to understand all aspects, the book is very accessible and written with a good pace and sense of humour.

If you are interested in engineering, patents or simply why things are designed the way they are, you can't do better than this book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Accessible, but certainly not 'dumb'. 6 Feb 2014
By Anon
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Like many hopeful university applicants, I ordered this book simply so I could write about it on my Personal statement. To my surprise I was awed at what a treat this gem turned out to be. Petroski effortlessly manages to walk you through the thinking that goes into an object as humble as the simple paperclip, right the way through to citywide mass infrastructure and aerospace engineering.

The book is structured such that each chapter deals with an object/group of objects along with a certain facet of engineering (such as how the design of a bridge can be affected by societal/political views). Starting small the first chapter introduces us to the general thinking of an engineer, and the myriad factors that must be considered when designing even the simplest of devices.

The biggest thing that leapt out to me was that this book was actually fun! I WANTED to find out more about the history of the paperclip, I NEEDED to know all about the design considerations of the tin can and I simply HAD to see just why zippers came about in the first place. It's a rate treat indeed to be gripped by something so superficially dull, but many a night I found myself bleary eyed in the wee hours of the morning, soldiering on to the end of another fascinating chapter.

(As a side note it's worth mentioning that the majority of this book is pretty much maths free, so read in confidence numberphobes!)

Needless to say, I definitely recommend this to any and all, whether you've just a passing interest, or dead set on becoming the next Dyson.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Small to Big 12 July 2012
By John
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The book, apart from the odd grammatical error, is well written. Starting off with the humble paper clip, it really gets you thinking about design, sustainability and economics. Later in the book it discusses grand engineering projects, like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Aeroplane (Boeing 777 and the like). The book is a good read, and I would advise anyone who wants to start a career in engineering, like myself, to read it, as well as anyone who likes to know why things are the way they are.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Impossibly Interesting 7 April 2010
After reading the first few lines I thought that this book would be appallingly dull and tedious, repeating itself and choosing to write about the most boring things the author could think of. But no. Petroski manages in the first chapter make the common office paperclip a fascinating artifact and leading us through how the designers and engineers have made the paperclip a near perfect design, how they have changed the design to make it more cheaper and how rivals have come up with their own solution to temporarily fastening paper together. The other chapters address a multitude of engineering challenges. A really interesting and enjoyable read, five stars, highly recommend.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a facinating and informative read 30 Aug 2000
By A Customer
As a prospective engineering student I found this book truly enjoyable. It is very detailed yet facinating and should inspire all of its readers to think about the design of everyday objects.
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