on May 10, 1999
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.
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. He compares its development to that of chopsticks, which are equally well suited to the same task, but take a very different form.
Other objects given a detailed examination in this book include paper clips, zippers, and cans for food, as well as openers for cans. In this last topic, Petroski brings out the point that objects are often developed and brought into use long before their supporting technology is even conceived of. Although tin cans came into general use during the first half of the Nineteenth Century, it was to be another 50 years before the first can opener was finally developed. Until then, producers of canned foods expected their customers to open their cans by stabbing them with hammer and chisel and (miraculously) come back for more!
Overall, I found the book somewhat interesting, and certainly illuminating. While I agree that form does follow failure in many cases, I think that Petroski is too quick to dismiss aesthetic influences in the evolution of form. He notes that some forks in modern tableware sets have only 3 tines out of a desire to look different or special, even though they aren't as efficient at conveying food as 4-tined forks. But he dismisses this as being a minor factor, unimportant for the general evolution of the fork. Perhaps he is right in the case of forks, but there are a number of other items where fashion plays a larger role. High-heeled shoes, for instance, are certainly an evolutionary wrong-turn in foot attire, but not a dead end. Colored cars are wasteful in the mass production process, as Henry Ford was quick to point out, but he learned that color options are also a selling point. Indeed, many times a better solution for achieving a task can be invented, but then never brought to market because of economics. Or the form that finally does become standard is a less than optimal solution for the task, but cheaper to manufacture than a better one. Petroski points to tableware sets with over 200 individual items, each with a separate task. He argues that each item was developed in response to some perceived failure of another form at doing the stated task, and dismisses the idea that it was simply manufacturers trying to develop new things for consumers to buy so that they would have a complete set. Personally, I'm not so sure that the manufacturers really depended entirely on failure to develop the forms of their tableware. I find it easy to imagine an artist being asked to come up with some more fancy designs that could be created in silver so that customers would have more items to purchase. Perhaps some of these new silver utensils received their titles only after they were actually created and tested to see what they might be good at. In short, I think that economics may have a stronger influence on the form of things than Petroski seems willing to grant in this book. But in any case, the book is very well researched and documented. It is amply illustrated with black-and-white photos and drawings. The text itself flows smoothly and is quite clear for general and technical readers alike although it can be a bit dry at times.
on January 26, 2003
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.
on August 20, 1997
Although the subject is fascinating, I did not like this book very much at all. First of all, it contains far too few illustrations. Not like I need a picture book, but the book is *about* how things look. In fact, at one point the author mentions that a device is clearly depicted in a (presumably famous) painting, but then fails to show it to us! To compensate, he attempts to use highly descriptive language. However, the word choices are often obscure and the sentences difficult to parse. In any case, variations on the saw (for example) are easier to show than tell. He also exaggerates the properties of inventions to bolster his arguments. For example, although weaker than tin cans, modern aluminum cans are hardly "collapsible cream puffs" (p.190), while the chapter on the evolution of silverware would have you believe that eating something without its dedicated fork variant is practically
The "message" of this book is that the statement "Form follows function" is false, and that it should be, "Form follows failure". He means that the current form of an object is determined by analysis of the failures of previous forms. Yet the revised form is determined by the function of the object, so this seems to be merely a rewording of the original saying. As he elaborates, it becomes increasingly clear that the issue is semantics, not the process of engineering.
This book would be greatly improved if the author had left out the weak "moral", stuck to the history of the inventions, and replaced many of the long descriptions with diagrams.
on January 25, 1999
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.
on August 23, 1998
Henry Petroski uses many examples to drive home REPEATEDLY his points that Irritation is the Mother of Invention, and that function doesn't dictate form. His presentation is convincing, and I enjoyed his discussion of the evolution of the paperclip. By the time he got to the trials of inventing the zipper it had begun to drag.
Of course it does take multiple examples to prove a point. But my real objection to the book isn't what it includes, but what it leaves out. Irritation may be the reason many inventions get started, but Mr. Petroski leaves out all mention of why they get finished, the sublime joy of coming up with something new and actually seeing it work.
on October 11, 1998
Things get improved because in their current form, they do not work properly. Henry Petroski's book, The Evolution of Useful Things, traces the development of objects in our everyday life, including detailed histories of the development of the staple, the zipper, silverware, and hand tools. The book is interesting, although Petroski does tend to shy away from offering a theory of development, and instead offers a conjectures about how things might have developed. He explains, but he does not offer a theory or an argument that explains everything. Overall, though, a goos book, well researched, well illustrated, and interesting on many levels.
on November 7, 2000
I enjoy books about inventions. However, this book is an exception to that hard-and-fast rule.
It's obvious that Petroski knows his stuff. This book is well researched. My issue has to do with the tone, structure, and repetitiveness of _The Evolution of Useful Things_.
I think it would have made more sense to name the chapters by invention. For example, "Fork" and "Paperclip" may have been more fitting. Since the chapters were not named this way, the book was difficult to follow. I kept asking myself, "When did he change the subject?" and "How did he make this transition?" Over and over again, Petroski kept repeating himself. At first this was acceptable (Maybe he's worried that his readership won't follow his line of scientific thought.). By the end, though, it was downright annoying!
Also, I would have liked the book to have a slightly different tone. The cover art and jacket summary gave me the feeling that this was to be a quirky, educational reading romp. Upon reading the book, though, I found its tone to be flat and "text book-y."
on June 19, 2001
Petroski often does a fine job of relating the facts surrounding everyday inventions, occasionally even stumbling across compelling stories, but always seems to come back to forks for some reason. And the conclusions he draws from his explorations seem trite. He mistakenly believes that 'form follows function' is generally held to be a law of design--and laboriously disproves it again and again--when in fact it is generally understood to be merely an aid toward good design.
on April 26, 2002
Mr. Petroski labors at too much length to describe how several common items became what they are today as a result of the design process and subsequent evolution as a result of engineers' continual desires for improvment. This exercise is less successful than earlier works which focused on the engineering process and used infrastructure projects such as buildings and bridges for examples.
Lay readers, and even engineers, would be better served by reading "Remaking the World" or "To Engineer Is Human" which provide more insight into the engineering process and which are more relevant and connected to the common structures and objects that we take for granted every day.