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on June 3, 2012
Laborious. Tedious. Melodramatic in spots. Dis-ordered. Much irrelevant wandering. Certainly I was disappointed with this book. I bought it on account of a positive review in the Wall Street Journal. This is the 2nd WSJ review that has led me astray - I can't recommend those either.

Perhaps 150 of the 360 content pages would have been eliminated by a competent editor. An entire chapter is devoted to mostly idle chatter about the author's graduate studies and experiences in a lab "known affectionately by the acronym TAM", a vignette of his dissertation advisor, and recountings of coffee klatches. I am an engineer by training, trade, and practice of more than 20 years, with plenty of time spent in labs. I did not develop an attachment to any of them. Another chapter is devoted to a meandering history of "Iron Ring Ceremonies". The first page or so is interesting - I had never heard of them - but little is gained thereafter. And then throughout the text we find such gems as "Success is success, but that is all that it is." Where was the editor?

I was hoping for an organized synopsis of failures of various kinds with details of the believed causes, as well as concise discussions of the non-technical human factors that are involved in almost all of them. It's not here. The narrative is often of the jumbled stream-of-consciousness type, with the author dropping into first person and diverging into all manner of side-topics. We have tortured discussions about bridges, ad infinitum, with revelations such as "Among the most important decisions in designing a new bridge are where to locate it and what kind of bridge to build". Luckily I bought this book. In some cases (e.g. the Columbia break-up and the Hyatt Regency walkways), the important details of the failure mechanism are not even explained. There are no sketches, no drawings, no tables of comparative data, no statistical summaries, and only a few photos - several being portraits of professors and colleagues in lieu of failed components. I have read technical reports on mechanical failures that were better organized and more thorough - and much shorter.

Credit the author with adequate referencing - there are copious footnotes. And there is some good, and to me new, information to be gleaned from this book, but you will need a fairly wide sieve and a tight dust mask - the volume of chaff can be overwhelming.
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on May 16, 2012
Henry Petroski has rightly established a reputation for bringing to our attention the lessons from many engineering failures and disasters. The latest book on engineering design highlights numerous examples of faulty design from the near and distant past, especially of very large structures such as bridges. He highlights two examples from Victorian England where railway bridges were to test design and materials to the very limits. The early railways in Britain demanded robust bridges owing to the dynamic loads they would have to resist as heavy locomotives and their accompanying trains passed over. One of the first failures occurred at a cast-iron bridge over the river Dee at Chester in May 1847. The bridge itself was designed by Robert Stephenson, and had been built for only a few months when a local train crashed through the structure as one of the massive cast iron girder gave way under the load. Long flat girders of similar design had been used in other railway bridges, but this was the longest bridge built using these girders. The inquest on the five victims was historic because a jury indicted the design and material, with the direct result that numerous other bridges had to be demolished and rebuilt. Cast iron is a poor material for beams because it is brittle when tensioned or bent, and can fracture very suddenly when over-loaded. Petroski describes the results of a recent re-analysis of the accident by English academics in Disaster on the Dee, which suggest that repeated loads can cause small cracks to grow with time until a critical crack size is reached and the beam suddenly fractures into many pieces. It is known as fatigue, and the Dee bridge failure came to be recognised as an early example of the problem. Railway engineers were after required to use a very high safety factor when designing such structures. He also points out that generational gaps can arise, when early lessons are forgotten by the next generation, and this happened in Britain, when later cast iron bridges failed again and again, culminating in the Tay bridge disaster of 1879 as described in Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay: reinvestgating the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879. It collapsed in a storm, and investigators focused on a highly significant detail: numerous broken cast iron lugs were found at the scene, and they were clearly implicated in the collapse of the bridge (which resulted in the disappearance of an entire train, with up to 75 casualties). It marked a watershed in design, and all bridges after this time used steel rather than cast iron for its much greater resistance to cracking. But once again, lessons can be forgotten, as the Silver bridge tragedy in West Virginia showed in 1967, less than a century later. It was a road suspension bridge over the Ohio river, and was crowded with cars when collapse was initiated at a single joint in the steel eyebar suspension chain. A tiny crack had grown over the 40 years that the bridge had been built and finally grown to completion, and the entire bridge collapsed from that single defect. The defect was found after examination of the parts dredged from the river, and corrosion over the years had exacerbated crack growth. It exposed the fact that the bridge had been under-designed for the loads it was destined to carry, especially as the weight of cars and lorries increased. Petroski writes fluently about these and other failures, as well as reminiscing about his own career path from theory to practical engineering, and this book should be required reading for every engineering student. Highly recommended.
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on June 9, 2014
This is the second of Petroski's books that I have read. It is a good book. It reminds me that when I think I am a master of something, I am likely to fail at it. He mainly discusses well known engineering failures and what caused them. The material is also good for other engineering professionals, politicians and bankers. When we forget the concepts that have gone into the construction of the systems with which we work, we are in danger of a major collapse. It is a bit frightening to realize how close a successful career can be to ignominy. It should call all of us in the technical and social professions to more care and study of the great catastrophes of history. We will certainly find another one around the corner.
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VINE VOICEon April 3, 2013
As an engineer with professional involvement in preventing and investigating failures, I've been a fan of Henry Petroski's work for many years. He's truly one of our greatest assets when it comes to researching the historical and humanistic dimensions of our profession and describing his findings in a way that's accessible to a broad audience of both professionals and the general reader. So I approached this book with high hopes.

Unfortunately, I found this book rather rambling, and while the aim is to describe the 'larger context in which accidents occur', Petroski is apparently unaware of an extensive literature developed over the past few decades which already covers this topic quite well (for example, see my review of the book Drift into Failure by Sidney Dekker). Nevertheless, here's my summary of the main points from the book:

(1) Because humans are fallible, there always have been and will be failures, even if we spend more to reduce risk, and occasional failure is arguably a price that must be paid for technological and social innovation and progress.

(2) Ultimately, all failures can be attributed to human factors. Whether this warrants 'blame' or not depends on the attitudes and intentions of the people involved, and whether the state-of-the-art knowledge available to them was sufficient to predict system behavior.

(3) Failure can arise from design error, such as when a change in design produces an unanticipated qualitative change in behavior. High ethical standards, professional licensing, and practitioners staying within their active domains of expertise can reduce this risk. But faulty design is only one of many human factors which can contribute to failures and, broadly speaking, economic, social, and political factors can substantially shape how technical decisions are made, such as by creating schedule and cost pressures, thus contributing to failures.

(4) Teams improve robustness by compensating for the limitations of individuals. However, teams can malfunction for several reasons: no individual may feel entirely responsible for outcomes, people on the front lines may be afraid to report problems and concerns, people may override safety measures because they assume that they know better than the system's designers, managers and engineers may work at cross-purposes, and organizational culture may be generally dysfunctional (possibly to the extent of involving corruption).

(5) In all aspects of dealing with systems, we routinely use models, and deficiencies in models often contribute to failure, such as by neglecting failure modes. In this regard, "theoretical mechanics seeks exact answers to approximate problems, while applied mechanics seeks approximate answers to exact problems."

(6) Complexity is found in both technology and organizations, and the interaction of the two further increases complexity. In particular, software can contribute to failure due to bugs, and fixing bugs can reveal or create other bugs. In this regard, due to not relying on software, previous generations of engineers tended to be more explicit about their assumptions and methods, whereas contemporary reliance upon software may be eroding conceptual skills.

(7) Dramatic failures are often preceded by long periods of normal or almost normal behavior during which smaller problems and warning signs may be neglected or rationalized away, past failures may be forgotten, and overconfidence and complacency may develop, until a final trigger appears and pushes the system 'beyond the edge'.

(8) We can hopefully reduce the incidence of failure by studying particular past failures and the nature of failure in general. But confusion often reins in the wake of a failure, evidence is usually incomplete or distorted, testing never fully replicates original conditions, eyewitness testimony can be unreliable, investigation of failures can take years, firm conclusions and consensus often aren't reached because failure hypotheses can seldom be proved (or disproved) with certainty, and the future never exactly repeats the past.

(9) Systems are sometimes intentionally designed to have components which will sacrificially fail to protect the overall system against a larger failure. Examples are fuses, crumple zones in cars, dolphins for protecting bridges against ship collision, fuse gates/plugs in dams, crack control joints in concrete, and impact absorption devices on highways.
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on August 9, 2012
This book provides lucid explanations of several spectacular failures from the Titanic to the Tacoma Narrows bridge and places them in an intellectual context that should be helpful to many a young or future scientist or engineer. It is written as if an avuncular uncle of great knowledge and experience were talking to a group of students. It is not tightly edited and formatted in Power Point logic. This may distress some purists, but they will miss an enjoyable and potentially valuable few hours in their obsessing over the paragraphs or even chapters they find distracting. My advice is to read the book for the 80% which is difficult to find elsewhere and enjoy the autobiographical excursions for what they are.

The truth is, engineers and scientists have few general audience voices for their craft besides a few writers at places such as The New York Times and The New Yorker. No one writes much about civil engineering and no one writes about learning from failure as a cautionary tale, not against progress, but against the arrogance which can stop progress for years if not decades. John McPhee and the two generations of his students simply can't cover all subjects.
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on January 23, 2013
I enjoyed reading this book for all the details of notable engineering failures and how we should learn from them. The book concentrates primarily on notable bridge failures. I am an electrical power engineer and would have liked more examples in my field, but the primary message of the book applies to any endeavor-What can go wrong with this plan? The book is sometimes repetitive, but written in a manner approachable to non-technical readers.
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on September 5, 2012
As a non-engineer, I approached this book with some hesitation after reading a review in the NY Times. However, it turned out to be one of the most interesting and informative books that I have read all summer. Did you know that major bridge collapses happen almost every 30 years because new engineers do not know the problems that were solved by their predecessors? Or that the Golden Gate bridge almost collapsed in 1987 because of the weight of pedestrians on the roadway? I could go on buy if there is one book dealing with the history of science and technology that I would recommend, it would be this one.
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on August 21, 2015
This book turned out to be way too professorial for me. It appeared to be aimed at students seeking very thorough, in-depth treatment of failure analysis investigations for civil engineers. Very philosophical and well written for the right audience.
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on April 13, 2015
Far from the best of Petroski's books. It is a journalist work based on newspaper cut outs added to autobiographic data and other book recycling.
The lowest technical point is page 64 when Professor Petroski says that nuclear plants are built with "extreme strength"..."enough to withstand the impact of an airplane". Could he tell us the name of one single nuclear plant that can withstand the impact of a commercial airplane ? This no data checking work.
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on June 10, 2012
I had high hopes for this expecting it to include lots of detail about the failures of large scale projects. The reality is that it does have some detail but only slightly more than what is available in the general public literature. Even that would be ok but there is a lot of "fluff" in the writing. Long sections about personal experience or some engineering history that has a minimal amount to do with the subject.
If one is willing to skip over at least a third of this book, there is still some interesting subject matter if for no other reason than it is all in one place.
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