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on 8 April 2006
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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on 14 October 2001
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 ways of doing things which leads to 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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on 19 February 1998
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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on 24 April 2016
When I was preparing to apply to become a chartered member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a mentor - I think as a warning against complacency - challenged me that I should be reading at least 6 books about engineering a year. From my experience, most engineering books are text books, so I asked him which books he suggested, and he couldn’t think of a single example of a readable book about engineering!

Petroski’s books then are rare gems of attempting to span that large distance between the remote island of engineering knowledge and the mainland of public imagination. Reading it as a structural engineer there was plenty that I was already familiar with, but also lots that was new. He draws on examples from both sides of the Atlantic, so having learnt my trade in the UK I found the discussion of iron bridges particularly Othmar Ammann (Quebec Bridge) and the Roeblings (Brooklyn Bridge) fresh and new. While others may be less familiar with Beauvais Cathedral, cracks in Big Ben or Paxton and the Crystal Palace.

His opening chapters suggest that the book is for a non-technical audience, but he sometimes lapses into advice for professionals such as lamenting that our drawings are no longer as beautiful as Galileo’s. The vocabulary is probably only accessible for teenagers and up (discussion of monographs, commissions, cantilevers etc.) but other than that, in my opinion it is accessible for a non-technical reader.
If I was being picky, I would like to have seen an over-arching story arc. Like there is in the excellent Fermat’s Last Theorem, which keeps you turning the pages. Petroski has research and includes an impressive amount of breadth - references to nursery rhymes, poetry, photos, quotes and lots of stories - but there is no one thread drawing it all together.

I think it could also benefit from more detail of the human side of the characters. For example my impression is that Brunel was quite a risk taker, he sought his father’s advice for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, but then ignored it when he was advised to include a central support; which was quite bold for a 20-year-old designing the longest spanning bridge in the UK!

So in summary, this book is a good introduction to engineering with plenty of nuggets and reminders for the more seasoned professional. It’s not a gripping page turner because there isn’t an over-arching narrative arc, but I enjoyed reading it and got several pages of quotes and stories from it that have broadened me out a bit and I’ll no doubt use again.

I've written more about readable books about engineering at [...]
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on 6 December 2014
First of all, this book is old! It looks at Engineering from 1984 - and treats computers as novel and a bit risky.
Second, it is a bit long winded at Places, where the author talks about personal experiences, which - after a couple of pages - has (some) relevance with the topic. Finally it would have benefitted greatly by more illustrations with relevance for the text.
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on 29 May 2013
A good book that tells several interesting short stories that would go well with induction lectures for Engineering courses. As I haven't finished reading it yet I can't really ass much more. The Space Shuttle on the front cover is misleading though, as unlike the picture of the Tacoma Narrows bridge above it, no Space Shuttles failed in such a way. The author or publisher has simply taken a picture of one of the Space Shuttles performing its gravity turn and rotated it through 90 degrees.
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on 24 March 2015
As an engineer myself, I found that the total engineering content of this book could be written in a large font on the back of a postage stamp.
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on 25 August 2008
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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on 28 June 1997
Why do buildings and bridges suddenly collapse, or why do airplanes fall out
of the sky ? Even though since the start of the industrial revolution the
relative number of disastrous accidents has gone down, it is still a daily

Some great examples are given (most prominently the walkway of a Houston
hotel that collapsed during the opening ceremony) with pictures and detailed
analysis. Great stuff even for non civil-engineers since with some
imagination you may learn some more general design lessons.

The editorial side of the book is less impressing, most facts and
interpretations are repeated 3 or 4 times throughout the book (excluding the
introduction and back flap) so I never got further than 3 quarters into it,
preventing myself from another deja vu.

In any way, a veryimportant and useful read.
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on 21 March 2015
Interesting review of engineering mistakes and entertaining too
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