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To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design Paperback – March 31, 1992

ISBN-13: 978-0679734161 ISBN-10: 0679734163
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Editorial Reviews Review

The moral of this book is that behind every great engineering success is a trail of often ignored (but frequently spectacular) engineering failures. Petroski covers many of the best known examples of well-intentioned but ultimately failed design in action -- the galloping Tacoma Narrows Bridge (which you've probably seen tossing cars willy-nilly in the famous black-and-white footage), the collapse of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel walkways -- and many lesser known but equally informative examples. The line of reasoning Petroski develops in this book were later formalized into his quasi-Darwinian model of technological evolution in The Evolution of Useful Things, but this book is arguably the more illuminating -- and defintely the more enjoyable -- of these two titles. Highly recommended.


Reading Petroski's fine book is not only a delight, it is a necessity -- Houston Chronicle

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (March 31, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679734163
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679734161
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #83,929 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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

3.7 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

39 of 39 people found the following review helpful By D. Prorok on June 11, 2000
Format: Paperback
To Engineer is Human is a surprisingly relevant book, despite being 15 years old now. Some of the examples may tax the memories of younger engineers and engineering students, but that's exactly the point of this book, to emphasize the nature of engineering: improving what has already been done in the past.

I, too, found the repetitive references to a limited number of examples tiring; I suspect this was done because Petroski had prior knowledge of these case studies and wished to minimize his research by drawing on what he knew about before writing. As an amateur historian of technology, I was also disappointed that few earlier historical examples were treated in any depth, the Crystal Palace being a notable exception.

The book is an easy read. Henry Petroski's prose is easy to grasp and flows well, holding the reader's interest, despite the repetition.
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36 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Joanna Daneman #1 HALL OF FAMETOP 10 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 14, 2001
Format: Paperback
The answer is well explained in this book. By the time you built such a car, it might be so heavy it couldn't move!
The real interest in this book are the analyses of various disasters that should have been planned for, but weren't.
The most terrible engineering disaster (and the reason I bought this book) was the collapse of the sky walkway in a hotel in Kansas City in the 1980's. I was just returning from KC when I heard the horrific news on the radio. The skyway collapsed during a dance, killing hundreds and injuring more in a dreadful disaster. I was very upset by this terrible event. Why did this happen?
The explanation in "To Engineer Is Human" is really brilliant; the walkway was designed "properly" with a bolt that went through the beam supporting it. But it could not be built as designed because the bolt couldn't be installed in the vertical support. Instead, the builders split the vertical support into two parts in order to install two bolts, and each part was then able to move independently, causing a shear force that eventually led to the disaster. A brilliant analysis and one that showed that despite correct design, the plan must be able to be implemented to work--or else the execution of the plan may doomed to disastrous failure.
That lesson is really important when you are engineering anything, even software. You may specify an important feature, but if the R&D department cannot implement the plan, the product may fail to meet its goals, even be defective.
The book is a bit "thin"--I wanted more and wished it were longer and had more detail, but I will say it makes its point and memorably so. After reading it, your eyes will be opened to how things are designed, how things fail and how engineering affects our lives.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By B L Lan on April 20, 2001
Format: Paperback
In this enlightening book, Petroski, who is professor of civil engineering, has succeeded admirably in conveying what engineering is and what engineers do in a manner that is accessible even to my grandmother, i.e., the general public. His presentation, although somewhat repetitive, is clear and sprinkled judiciously with humor. Moreover, it is illustrated with familiar analogies, and also numerous mechanical and civil engineering examples including everyday objects such as paper clips, toys and knives.
To engineer is to design, `making something that has not existed before'. Petroski provides insights into the design process (which involves computers extensively nowadays) and its limitations, and also the means employed by engineers to prevent failures in their designs.
He emphasizes, however, that it is not possible to anticipate all possible ways a design can fail and thus failures inevitably occur because engineers are, after all, humans. Numerous examples of catastrophic structural failures throughout history are presented and discussed. All involved the tragic loss of lives (for instance, the collapse of two crowded suspended walkways onto the crowded floor of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency hotel in 1981) except the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridge in Washington State in 1940.
Petroksi also discusses the failure analysis or forensic engineering that is performed in the wake of a catastrophic design failure to understand how and why the failure occurred. He argues convincingly throughout the book that understanding such design failures can advance engineering more than successes. Design failures, like other failures in life, should be embraced, rather than denied or ignored, and learned from. Great engineers, and great people in general, are the ones who heed George Santayana's famous dictum: `Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Todd I. Stark VINE VOICE on March 30, 2002
Format: Paperback
A deep insight into complex problem solving; it isn't done in a single brilliant step but in smaller steps while learning from our mistakes.
This isn't a very good book in my opinion, and it's a shame because it's a very strong thesis excellently presented. But all too briefly and too thinly demonstrated. A really great idea that seems to have fizzled for some reason.
The basic idea is that engineering is commonly imagined (at least by people outside of engineering) to be a matter of systematically studying a problem and crafting a great solution. The reality, as the author explains very well, is that engineering efforts viewed in retrospect are more like hypotheses or good guesses at solutions. We craft something that works, and then see the weaknesses and learn from them for the next improvement.
The point is that improvements are not simply a matter of meeting new customer demands or adding new features, nor even just correcting avoidable mistakes. Some corrections and improvements are neccessary because complex systems have aspects that really can't reasonably be predicted at design time. The mistakes don't just arise because engineers are less than perfect, but are an intrinsic part of the process of human beings engineering complex designs in the real world. There is rarely if ever even the potential for creating a flawless perfect design that anticipates all likely contingencies and second and third order causal effects of even simple changes.
Whether a "zero defect" mentality is helpful or not as an ideal, it doesn't reflect how engineering actually works, at least when complex systems are involved. The reality of human engineering is that intermediate failures are an important part of the process.
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