ASEE Prism On-line, February 2000
the poet laureate of technology
Henry Petroski, a Duke engineering professor and highly acclaimed author, uses his literary talents to shed light on the design process.
By Viva Hardigg

Photography by Bryan TaylorThe label "success story" enjoys a firm foothold in our lexicon in a way that "failure story" does not. But to Henry Petroski, the latter is often the more compelling tale. When it comes to the study of engineering, he resolutely believes in accentuating the negative as well as the positive. "I try to tell students that engineering design is a lot of faultfinding," says Petroski, chair of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University. "When you criticize the technology, that's how you improve it." For all structural engineering projects from paper clips to pencils to long-span bridges, form follows failure.

In nine highly acclaimed books—among them The Evolution of Useful Things, The Pencil, Engineers of Dreams, and, most recently, The Book on the Bookshelf —Petroski has used his analytic and literary talents to illuminate the design process and the human factors at its core. Impeccably researched, his writings place the triumphs and tragedies of technological innovation in a historic and cultural context. Consistently, he has found that design today has the same fundamental elements as it did a thousand years ago and as he anticipates it will have in the next millennium. "The more we know about history, the more we know about what we're doing today, and the more we know about what we will be doing in the future," he says. "We still make the same human errors. We still make the same mistakes. They may take different forms, but fundamentally they're the same."

In the Introduction to Structural Engineering course he teaches, Petroski makes sure freshmen and sophomores get hands-on experience in the actual making of things. To introduce them to the idea of design, he assigns students the task of redesigning a less-than- perfect everyday object. Usually about half of his class attempts a new twist on the paper clip, an object to which Petroski dedicated a chapter of his book Invention by Design.

Other students tackle problems related to dormitory life—like the fact that an imperfect soap dish often leads to soft and clammy soap in the shuffle between bedroom and public shower. "Soap dishes seem to be things that concern students," Petroski says, noting the number of soap dishes with drains that have cropped up in his course. One student designed an improved crumb-scraping tool for waiters that incorporated a small trough to catch crumbs, so they wouldn't go cascading onto restaurant floors. "A lot of these designs could actually be patented and marketed if the students wanted to, but that's not the main objective," Petroski explains. "The idea is to get them to understand what design is, and then we go on and we talk about more and more complicated things."

an early model

Petroski's own engineering education began long before college. Since boyhood, he had a keen awareness of the structure of things. Born in 1942, Petroski grew up in Park Slope in Brooklyn, New York, where he spent a lot of time roving about Prospect Park, climbing on the monkey bars and roller-skating. He found himself interested in how the park was shaped and how it functioned. "I was interested in how the paths curved and how they were hilly and how they were deliberate. It was designed," he says. "It is really in many ways a model that I still carry around. So many things remind me of Prospect Park."

These were also the days when Petroski, like so many young engineers-in-the-making, was drawn to model railroads and erector sets or, as he calls them, "the toys that build engineers." (See January Prism, p. 31) Later, after his family moved to Queens, he worked part time in a bicycle shop, repairing broken chains and realigning wheels.

Now as an educator, he wonders about the developmental merits of children spending their leisure hours in front of a computer screen instead of assembling things with their hands. He's quick to add that such musings are speculative, because there is no evidence that this change in play will adversely affect the engineering profession.

"I'm more or less repeating what a lot of people have written—that there's a concern about this. You can't go into an engineering classroom and assume that a student has used a screwdriver in any sophisticated way, for example," he says with a laugh. "But this again is not totally a new phenomenon. There's a book written by James Nasmyth, who was a Scottish engineer in the 19th century. He wrote in his autobiography, which would have been around the middle of the century, how young engineering apprentices were coming to work with white gloves and they didn't really want to get their hands dirty."

By the time Petroski started his freshman year at Manhattan College, his hands had been dirtied by plenty of axle grease and he certainly knew how to use a screwdriver. But he and some of his classmates began questioning if engineering was indeed the right path for them. Responding to the Sputnik program of the late 1950s, their college counselors had encouraged them to enter the field. Now, amid late night discussions of Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoevsky, they asked each other whether math and physics might not be superior to engineering. "These were big questions," he recalls. "Did engineering have the weight that these other things had?

"I recognize now that yes, it does, and maybe even more, when you think of great tragedies such as building bridges all your life and then having your final bridge collapse like Theodore Cooper. But we didn't study much history of engineering back then. So engineering was never put in a cultural context."

trying out a new tool

While pursuing his doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Petroski started teaching himself the tools to express that cultural context. He began writing lots of poems, which led him to other kinds of writing. He regards writing itself as a design problem. Using words, the writer builds a structure that has a beginning, middle, and end. "To sit down and write an article or a book, or a poem, you've got to deal with constraints. A sonnet is a good example," he explains. Sonnets have a number of rigorous rules: fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, and a certain rhyme scheme.

Similarly, "to design a bridge, it has to have a certain length," he says. "It has to have a certain rhythm to its design or it's not going to look right. You can draw a pretty strong analogy, but the important thing is that it, too, has constraints. It has to have a certain number of lanes of traffic. It has to be a certain height above the water. It has to make sense in the infrastructure in which it is imbedded."

Petroski has found literary inspiration in a number of his structural engineering forebears, especially those of the 19th century. He admires the prose of engineers such as James Buchanan Eads and Robert Stephenson: "How they put a sentence, or a report together, they are models of literature in many ways. And they could be included in a freshman anthology in a liberal arts curriculum because they don't contain any ideas that could not be accessible to somebody who can think and read."

The same could be said for Petroski's writing, although he's quick to point out that he does not write with the sole purpose of explaining engineering to the nonengineer. Many of his books are used in engineering courses as required reading rather than textbooks, and many of the letters he receives are from engineers who have read his books or bimonthly columns in the Sigma Xi magazine American Scientist.

His own reading appetite revolves around engineering texts, from descriptions of an 1870s bridge design to Aristotle's minor works ("because they have to do with things.") Even the occasional fiction he reads usually has an engineering bent, such as E.L. Doctorow's The Waterworks or David E. Morse's The Iron Bridge.

What always holds his interest in his reading, research, writing, and teaching is the driving force of design. "Design is the creative part of engineering, and it transcends the state of the art," he says. "It's got nothing to do with whether we're using computers or some other thing that might replace computers in the future. Those are just tools. There's this element that is uniquely human and that is an essential, the essential part of engineering." It's hard to find fault with those words.


Viva Hardigg is a freelance writer in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The Book on the Bookshelf

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