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To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design [Paperback]

Henry Petroski
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design + The New Science of Strong Materials: Or Why You Don't Fall Through the  Floor (Penguin Science) + Engineering: A Beginner's Guide (Beginner's Guides)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 251 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition (30 April 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679734163
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679734161
  • Product Dimensions: 20.5 x 13.2 x 1.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 56,403 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Examines the process of engineering design and explains what can be learned by studying unsuccessful designs and the reasons for their failure.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
Shortly after the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel skywalks collapsed in 1981, one of my neighbors asked me how such a thing could happen. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not entirely a success story 8 April 2006
By kvetner
Henry Petroski is an author of "popular engineering" books, the cousin to "popular science", which attempt to explain the process of engineering design to a non-specialist audience.
This book documents how successful engineering is a process of predicting and preventing failure. Several chapters offer a variety of viewpoints on the philosophy of design: engineering as hypothesis (this building will stand up) which is tested analytically or empirically; design as revision (if we change this bit it will stand up); success as foreseeing failure etc.
There are several good angles here, particularly where Petroski likens engineering design to the way in which children learn. For non-engineers, there is also useful material on factors of safety, failure by cracking and other basics.
Petroski's use of language is excellent, but as an engineer, I do find a lot of the book disappointing. Non-engineers might come away thinking they know why Tacoma Narrows collapsed, or what fatigue cracking is, but the technical reasons are at best alluded to, never properly explained. Petroski's paper-clip example for fatigue cracking is particularly poor, as it mixes in two generally unrelated issues (brittle failure and plastic strain hardening; although ultimate failure is indeed due to fatigue cracking). For technical matters, "Why Buildings Fall Down" by Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori is far superior, and much better illustrated with simple and easy-to-follow diagrams.
Where Petroski succeeds is in the human processes of design engineering, but even here he is somewhat weak. He's good on the philosophy but not the reality - you couldn't read this and get any grasp on how a design engineer actually spends their day, for example.
Worth reading, but let down by its fear of the technicalities.
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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars First half poor, second half thought-provoking 14 Oct 2001
By A Customer
I nearly gave up around page 21 where there is, considering the author's credentials, an astonishing error. The author explains how he demonstrates metal fatigue to his classes: by bending a paper clip back and forth until it breaks. He concludes "...that, I tell the class, is failure by fatigue". Well no actually, its work hardening. In chapter 4, the author appears to confuse hypothesis and presupposition. At another point, he uses the term "stresses and strains of modern life". This is not wrong in itself but it further shakes ones confidence. Engineers tend not to use the phrase in this commonplace way because "stress" and "strain" have quite specific (and totally different) meanings in engineering. It is a bit like those war films where the radio operator says "over and out". It jars because a professional would say "over" or "out" but not both. There is more. The English is pretty bad at times ("ingeniousness" instead of "ingenuity" on page 16 and "fail-proofness" on page 44). Much of the first half came over to me as a poorly structured stream of consciousness.
The second half, for me, made it worth wading through all this; although the author still did not always follow through the thoughts that he fired off. The section on the crystal palace was fascinating, as was the story of the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate bridge in the Afterword to the Vintage edition
For me, the whole book was worth the single sentence "designed objects change the future into which they will age"; in other words new technology leads to ...new ways of doing things which leads to ...new possibilities of failure which ...were not covered in the design because people didn't do things that way then.
Not a brilliant book, and some pretty basic gaffes which are difficult to understand - but worth reading as a whole.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Excellent start but falls flat 19 Feb 1998
By A Customer
This book has an interesting goal: To explain engineering failures. But instead of an in-depth failure analysis of the Hyatt hotel, Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and buses, the reader gets the same simple ideas repeated again and again. The Hyatt hotel disaster is mentioned in detail three times before its chapter. That chapter just retells the story and adds little value or insight. This book needs better organization and more real detail and in-depth analysis.
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I found the book absolutely fascinating, especially since I am a mechanical engineer by education and experience. To Engineer is Human covers some of the greatest engineering disasters in modern times such as the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse, the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Walkways collapse and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Henry Petroski explains the engineering disaster in great detail and then explores the causes and effects. He then explores how (if possible) the disaster could have been avoided.

Well written and understandable this book is a masterpiece. One of the primary things that all good engineers do is to contemplate the "lessons learned" after any significant endeavor...whether it has good or bad results. As the old saying goes: Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it!

Engineers as well as anyone else who has an interest in engineering marvels and what can go wrong will find this book entertaining, informative and well researched.

The Re-Discovery of Common Sense: A Guide To: The Lost Art of Critical Thinking
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