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The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are Paperback – February 1, 1994

ISBN-13: 978-0679740391 ISBN-10: 0679740392 Edition: Reprint

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The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are + To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design + Invention by Design; How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (February 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679740392
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679740391
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #292,445 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

This surprising book may appear to be about the simple things of life--forks, paper clips, zippers--but in fact it is a far-flung historical adventure on the evolution of common culture. To trace the fork's history, Duke University professor of civil engineering Henry Petroski travels from prehistoric times to Texas barbecue to Cardinal Richelieu to England's Industrial Revolution to the American Civil War--and beyond. Each item described offers a cultural history lesson, plus there's plenty of engineering detail for those so inclined.

From Library Journal

For armchair inventors or those who are curious about the way things work, this book offers hours of delight. Petroski (engineering, Duke Univ.) provides an intricate look, in lay reader's terms, at the technology and basic rationale behind a number of items we often take for granted. The list is comprehensive: kitchen utensils, zippers, tools, paper clips, fast-food packaging, and more. The text is far from a recital of mere facts. Petroski's anecdotes and stories about individual designers and inventors are told with warm regard. Petroski also provides illuminating thoughts on the theoretical, historical, and cultural frameworks that influenced these creations. Although this book will appeal to a somewhat specialized audience, many general readers will find it fascinating and educational. For circulating libraries.
- Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, N.J.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. The author of more than a dozen previous books, he lives in Durham, North Carolina, and Arrowsic, Maine.

Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

48 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Glenn Fleishman on May 10, 1999
Format: Paperback
Petroski introduces some wonderful and introducing ideas about the develop and baroque-ing of ordinary objects, as well as illuminating the whole notion of "things" that seem self-evident after they were invented. Okay, the man needs an editor. Please, someone, convince him. His book The Pencil suffers from the same needless and enormous repetition. Both books could have been 1/2 to 1/3 of their sizes and been enormously improved. His saving grace is his solidity of research and his interesting ideas.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 31, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book is an extended essay about the process of invention. In it, Petroski takes the viewpoint that the form of manufactured items is the result of an evolutionary-like process. He stresses that for any specific item, the form it has is only an arbitrary choice from many possible solutions that the inventor could have come up with. And the driving force behind invention, according to Petroski is failure- -each change in form that an invention takes is the result of trying to address some failure in what was done previously.
Petroski introduces the book with an item that very aptly demonstrates his thesis: the fork. He details the history of the development of the fork, starting with the table manners of the Middle Ages, when people were in the habit of using knives to both spear bits of food and convey them to their mouths. But in order to chop off bits of food from larger pieces, it was handy to have a second knife to hold the larger piece steady. Of course, the second knife was also like to put a hole in the larger piece, and wasn't well adapted to holding things, not until someone had the brilliant idea of making a stabilizing knife with two prongs instead of one. Eventually, this stabilizing knife began to be used for conveying food to the mouth instead of just holding food steady while cutting, and it was found that four prongs were much better suited for this task than two. Each step of the way through the history of the fork, Petroski points out how when the implement of the time failed to accomplish its intended task satisfactorily, its form was modified, until the fork took its present customary form. At the same time, however, Petroski also stresses that the current form of the fork is only one possible solution to the food conveyance problem.
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75 of 86 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 25, 1999
Format: Paperback
When I saw this book listed as number 13 on the Amazon bestsellers list for General Science, I felt compelled to warn others about this book. The only merit to the book is that the author provides some interesting information about the history of Post-It notes, paperclips, tableware and such--THAT'S ALL! The style of writing is rambling and redundant. The level of detail in places is enough to bore the most die-hard fan of this topic. At times, I wondered if this book was even proofread by anyone before being published. The author does not do a very good job of making a case for his theories about design--and it is simplistic case to begin with. I normally find merits to almost every book I read and with this one it was difficult. This is the only 1 star review I've ever submitted. Only buy this book if you are an absolutely die hard fan of the topic of design or the history of everyday items. If you do buy it then don't even think about reading it before going to bed--unless you have insomnia. The tragedy is that the topic could have been very interesting and entertaining. The author obviously has the necessary subject matter expertise.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Glen Engel Cox on January 26, 2003
Format: Paperback
Petroski's field is design, but his take on it is the history of design rather than the "science" of design as Donald Norman (of The Design of Everyday Things fame). Although their approach is different, the two men share some of the same insights into how and why objects are the way they were. But where Norman's philosophy is that an object can be designed to be "better," Petroski feels that an object will always be less than perfect. His theory, in part, is that because most objects have multiple purposes, the object can not perform any single task perfectly. This idea of the competition of purposes is best illustrated from the book by Petroski's examination of eating utensils. The perfect utensil would be one that could cut and lift food to the mouth for eating. But knifes that cut have difficulty in lifting, forks are almost useless with a soup, and a spoon doesn't cut well. By showing us the evolution of the flatware selection (which remains imperfect), Petroski gives weight to his theory.
But I'm not wholly convinced. Perhaps it's because I read Norman first that I want to defend him. I want to believe that objects can be bettered--an interface can be easier to use, etc. The difference between Norman and Petroski is also one of style. Norman's prose is almost light weight compared to the dense, multi-syllabic approach used by Petroski, and Norman wasn't afraid to use terms and ideas that were not in lay usage. It could be that Norman's short columnar structure breaks up the duty of trying to convey so much information that his is more readable prose. It could also be that Petroski likes the language of academia, even when it begins to obfuscate. From the design standpoint, both authors are worthwhile. It is important to see specific examples of real world solutions to design problems to come up with ideas for our own designs, be it a fork, a building, or software.
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