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The Evolution Of Useful Things

3.55 of 5 stars 3.55  ·  rating details  ·  753 ratings  ·  93 reviews
Only Henry Petroski, author of The Pencil, could make one never pick up a paper clip again without being overcome with feelings of awe and reverence. In his new book the author examines a host of techno-trivia questions - how the fork got its tines, why Scotch tape is called that, how the paper clip evolved, how the Post-it note came to be, how the zipper was named, why al ...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published November 10th 1992 by Knopf
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Heyrebekah Alm
This book is far more interesting than one might expect from reading the back cover. The author argues that form does not follow function and necessity is not the mother of invention. Instead, the major inspiration for invention is correcting the failure of previous inventions. Makes sense to me, although I always thought "form follows function" was more a rule for good design--as in form SHOULD follow function--rather than a truth about design. All of that theory gets a little boring and repeti ...more
My last book of 2012.

This book is less a "hey this is how things came to be" and more "hey this why form follows function is a bunch of malarkey and form follows a lot of things--often failure."

This book was not what I thought it was. But that's not always a bad thing. In fact, I think I got a lot of bang for my buck by it not being what I thought it would be. It made me think more and analyze more. Less trivia, more thought.

How things get designed and how they come to be is sometimes lost in th
Apr 05, 2010 Alan rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Patient seekers after minutiae
Recommended to Alan by: Having heard the author speak
The title and the physical design of this book echo—and intentionally, I'm sure—those chosen for paperback editions of Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things (née The Psychology of Everyday Things), at least in the edition I read. Norman's landmark work receives its due in the Index and Bibliography of Petroski's, and these two works do scratch very similar itches, but I'm convinced that the physical similarity of design is here neither Norman's nor Petroski's, but rather that of some mar ...more
Carmen something
His later text is much better edited. I'm not saying that Engineers can't write or edit, I'm just saying that the 65 pages spent on knives, spoons, and forks was--oh, dare I?--bland.

Beth Barnett
The subject matter is definitely interesting, but the author's writing style is dry and not suitably engaging. I had to force myself to continue at times to get through boring sections.
This is the second of Petroski's books that I have read now. I have got to say, I'm not impressed. He is a weak writer and an even weaker historian, but I suppose that is to be expected since he is an engineer, and a very noteworthy one at that. I suppose that I am particularly disappointed because the subject matter of Petroski's books are so very appealing. I love the idea of creating a history of the forgotten or ignored things of everyday life. Bravo to him for actually attempting to do this ...more
On occasion, the reader can be caught up in an interesting process of new form through failure or necessity (for example, I had never thought to attribute the relatively short existence of McDonald's McDLT to the environmental shift away from polystyrene packaging at the time) but through most of the book the writing is too dry to truly grab. Some of the information could be fascinating, but unfortunately much of it read like assigned homework from a sell-back-immediately-at-the-end-of-semester ...more
Petroski refutes the idea that form follows function, instead showing how form actually follows the failures (real or perceived) of previous technology. Although he is sometimes repetitive in making his point, his case studies of paperclips, forks, zippers, etc. are fascinating. Petroski writes with dry humor and a sly turn of phrase that made me smile frequently while reading this otherwise fairly scholarly work.

I also learned that Dayton is famous for something other than the Wright brothers a
solid Harper-Collins / Vintage ebook from 1994; comparable to big six industry 'rewrite books' wherein doctorate or academic explains topic (in this case, engineering of household items) to layman's audience. paperclip, zipper, forks, wheelbarrow, you get the picture.

perhaps not such as a smash hit as 'how things work' (text rather than diagrams, mostly), but certainly competent, workmanslike prose 4/5
Disappointly dull - occasional oases of interest in the desert-like trek to the end. Also, rather dated, I hadn't realized the book is nearly 20 years old until, near the end, the author laments the end of his work phone setup, with its "row of lighted buttons" for outside lines, and mentions his rotary dial phone at home!

Not particularly recommended.
Fascinating snippets of the evolution of useful things (see especially the development of the Big Mac wrapper as well as the soft drink can). For the most part, however, the narrative can sometimes drag a bit too slowly.
Need to come back to this and finish it later.
Although I list only two of Petroski's books here on I've read a few others of them. A dry writing style is common to them all. Another characteristic of all of them is his penchant for choosing something that's not terribly significant, or that's tenuously germane, and beating it to a pulp. In this volume he wields his cudgel against the maxim, "form follows function," which is, itself, a misquotation from Louis Sullivan's article in 1896 The Tall Office Building Artistically Cons ...more
Todd Martin
The Evolution of Useful Things is a book about design, and argues that rather than form following function, form follows failure (or more accurately, it follows from successive attempts to fix things that we don’t like about an object). Topics range from paper clips, silverware, post-it notes, aluminum cans, zippers and other common place objects.

While some of the material is quite interesting, Petroski (an engineering professor at Duke University) writes with a style that would not be describe
Did you know that Marx was astounded that a factory in Britain produced 500 different types of hammers? I do, because I was told so at least three times.

This book had such potential. Sometimes it delivered, but sometimes, I found myself grinding through a chapter, constantly checking to see how many pages til it ended.

The book was well researched, I will give the author that. Occasionally, there were very light bouts of humor, such as the comparison of the rollover of plastic trash bags to how w
Given that the men in my family have been machinists and engineers for at least 200 years, it's no surprise I love this book.

It is *not* an academic work. The writing style is casual and engaging - certainly not dry or dull - which is key to making it accessible and interesting to a wide audience.

The book does, however, have a thesis. The author argues throughout that the history of invention is driven by the desire either to improve existing objects or to provide better solutions than existing
This book is a lot of fun. Although the theme has the potential to be quite dry, Petroski wraps it in details that fascinate. It is not heavily illustrated, but those which he uses serve the purpose nicely. You too can find out where the paper clip came from, or how forks evolved from knives and why they have four tines. These are things we use every day, and never think about how they came to be.

Petroski also wrote "The Pencil" so I definitely need to go there next!
In this book-length essay, Petroski, a professor of engineering and history at Duke University, states his case that the maxim "form follows function" is inherently false. He opens his argument with the observation that if form, indeed, followed function, there would be no difference in utensils between East and West. Only one solution would have formed to transport food to mouth. The fact that both chopsticks and knives and fork have equally evolved to solve this problem proves, to Petroski, th ...more
The author's central argument is that failure breeds improvement rather than form following function. This seems like quite a narrow distinction to me, but perhaps that is an odd complaint from someone reading a book that details the development of the fourth tine on a fork and analyzes the comparative benefits of different rope-tying methods on now-antique bedsteads. The information in the book is interesting, however, and I have gained many more points of minutiae with which to astound my high ...more
Anna Engel
I very much enjoyed the chapter about forks and other flatware. It was full of wonderful tidbits about the evolution of how we eat and handle our food. Unfortunately, the following chapters were more about the theory behind design - that form doesn't fit function but rather that dysfunction encourages better form. Interesting concept, but boring reading.
I read this book when it came out and found it fascinating> So I read it again a few years later and have kept up with the author. I think in subsequent books, Petroski has expanded on ideas he first explored more lightly in this book. I like his books because they give us a different way to look at the world around us, considering how things mankind creates were created. For me, as Christian, it also makes me think about how God had to think to create things, because design is no accident, t ...more
I found this book most interesting in the parts where the author used concrete examples of the evolution of objects to illustrate his points about invention/design. It was interesting to read about and see images of how things like forks, paper clips and zippers changed over time (and that's the kind of thing I was looking for when I picked up this book).

The parts I found less interesting were the extended theoretical parts about the evolution of objects. I absolutely agree with the author's pr
#2 2012 -- I love to buy books related to engineering and design, but I have a hard time finishing them. This book was no exception. Petroski discusses the evolution of common office/household objects with special emphasis on forks, paper clips, and zippers. His primary thesis is that it is not true that 'form follows function' but rather that 'form follows failure' meaning that inventors (or designers) change the function of an object in response to a failure. He also touches on other factors w ...more
If the topic interests you, this is not a bad book. I found some of the stories fascinating, such as the invention and refinement of the paper clip and the history of the fork. The author's thesis is that, unlike the oft-repeated truism, form does NOT follow function. All well and good,and he makes a reasonable argument; however, he cannot resist the temptation to hammer his point home every, say, page and a half. So it's repetitive. And redundant. And repetitive...
Patrick Pilz
An interesting timeless book about the mechanisms of innovation in general. The writing is a little complicated and stale and some of the storylines are a bit confusing.
B. Rule
The parts of this book where he talks about the properties and forms of everyday objects and how they developed are fascinating. Unfortunately, those parts of the book are interspersed with long sections of inside-baseball industrial design arguments (constant theme: "form follows failure, not form follows function") and weirdly grumpy personal complaints about specific products or large swaths of technology ("Push button phones! Who needs 'em!"). Coupled with the author's dry as dust delivery, ...more
I got half way and had to put the book down before my brain melted. Some bits were interesting, but most of what I read was incredibly boring and overly verbose.
His basic thesis is logical -- we develop things through testing and improvement, not through some sudden brainstorm by which we realize the perfect form. The fork, for example, looks as it does because we had earlier, inferior versions of the fork that didn't do the job well. It makes sense and it probably (generally) correct, although I think the book underestimates the role of fashion and culture and tries to fit them in within this broader framework. But the text becomes repetitive, continua ...more
I like the material, and the first chapter held my attention alright, but a few pages into the second I realized I wasn't enjoying it anymore. Petroski can be dry at times and confusing at others, like when he cites multiple different authors (none of whom were familiar to me) and considers their theses simultaneously. He also makes "form follows function" the central point of the book (albeit to refute it, not to endorse it), but I think the phrase meant something different to him than it does ...more
Essence of book: form follows failure.

Invention is innovation from existing forms in an iterative process that gets rid of old problems, to which most people had resigned themselves of gotten used to, while sometimes creating new issues that later generations will in their turn correct imperfectly. Bridges are almost pure function and therefore beautiful through substance instead of through style. Embellishment is gross. At times got too involved in the minutiae, but to someone else that could b
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Henry Petroski is a civil engineering professor at Duke University where he specializes in failure analysis.

Petroski was born in Brooklyn, New York, and in 1963, he received his bachelor's degree from Manhattan College. He graduated with his Ph.D. in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1968. Before beginning his work at Duke in 1980, he worked a
More about Henry Petroski...
The Book on the Bookshelf To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing

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