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The Evolution Of Useful Things

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  981 Ratings  ·  128 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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Apr 05, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  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
Jan 03, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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.
May 16, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Trena by: Bill Bryson, At Home
I assumed that my now love for non-fiction was a matter of age. That reaching my 30s (and now 40s) gave me a gravitas that lead me to weightier subjects. In reality, I'm pretty sure it's a function of the current writing style for non-fiction. Reading this now nearly 20 year old book reminded me how plodding, boring non-fiction got its reputation.

Petroski's content is decent, and some of the stories are quite fascinating, particularly the cover story on the paper clip and the evolution of silver
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.

TAKEAWAY: I'll look at paper clips and forks a bit differently now. Fasteners, too.

~~ Strangely -- for the subject matter -- far too sparse with illustrations and the size thereof.
~~ It's often long-winded and/or dwells on less-interesting aspects.
~~ May induce slumber in readers not fascinated by minutiae.

++ I enjoyed the illustrations that were large enough to see.
++ Less-known history/trivia in a largely accessible (if dry) presentation.
++ If you love cutlery design and pap
Sep 22, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: design
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
Apr 12, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 07, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
What I wanted was a close examination and demonstration of arcane objects that were once a part of everyday life. Instead, I got this man's theory as why humans alter an object in the first place. Which is possibly the most banal reason I can think of: because it wasn't good enough.

I think you'd have to be a complete cloud dweller to actually take the whole "form follows function" doctrine seriously. All them dang modernist buildings got roofs that leak.

So, I enjoyed learning about forks and zip
Jul 29, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 25, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library_books, ebooks
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.
Jan 28, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010
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.
Jim Razinha
Interesting, but limited in scope. Good observations that very little is revolutionary...most is evolutionary.
Jul 08, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: partially-read
Need to come back to this and finish it later.
Jun 16, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Disappointing. A Petroski should be exhaustively, extensively researched, in more detail than anyone would ever want (I'm looking at you, The Pencil). This book is a series of kinda interesting tidbits about various items in our lives, but none of them as well researched. That might be fine, if each of those tidbit was combined with some grand, continuous threads throughout the entire book - perhaps, about the evolution of useful things. But here Petroski's writing style hurt. I sometimes felt l ...more
Warren Benton
"Everything around me is artificial, repurposed things from nature."

"Nearly always when a new feature appears it has earned its place by defeating an older one."

This book is not the most riveting read.  It does, however, give insights into designs of things we now take for granted.  Discussing silverware, paper clips, and many other daily used items Petroski talks of their evolution.  For some of the items, he may have original patent illustrations or old photos.  I think this book would be inte
Erik Volk
At times very interesting and insightful and well written. At times, I had to force myself through somewhat boring, dry and relatively uninteresting chapters. All in interesting book but I liked the chapters on the actual origin of specific things like eating utensils, paper clips, etc. Perhaps, I was deceived by the title and was expecting all chapters to focus on the evolution of specific objects rather than theories about form and function of items in general.
Jerrid Kruse
Jun 13, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A detailed history of seemingly mundane artifacts. Rather than form following function as we so easily believe, the author claims that form follows failure (functional, economical, environmental, aesthetic, etc). Of course this failure is subjective and that any design that falls too far from the norm will be rejected (at least in the short term). The various types of failure drive the evolution of technology.
Yi-hsin Lin
Mar 02, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The central thesis that form follows problem-solving rather than upfront design will seem obvious to any engineer/inventor, but the histories of how various common objects evolved make for fascinating reading.
Zhi Chen
I enjoyed the varying degrees of examinations from in-depth historical details to general and broad overviews, although I would have preferred more of a historical account. Petroski's mantra that "form follows failure" will forever be stuck with me.
The stories in this book are fascinating, if a little dry sometimes. Petroski's larger thesis about the importance of failure is not all that interesting.
Espen Benoni
I read this book for the sole purpose of writing an essay about it in school.

Petroski has some good points, such as "form follows failure" and "all design is redesign", but the book is way too detailed and tedious, to a point where it becomes boring.

The points Petroski makes could much more easily have been communicated in an article or at least a book half the length, and without all the jargon.

If you are interested in the topic Petroski discusses, read a summary of the book or try to find inf
Nola Redd
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
Jan 05, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 02, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I was very much looking forward to reading this book, as the subject matter seemed very intriguing. How did things like paper clips, silverware, zippers, soda cans, and other everyday objects achieve their current form? The author's premise was also noteworthy: "The form of made things is always subject to change in response to their real or perceived shortcomings, their failures to function properly. This principle governs all invention, innovation, and ingenuity; it is what drives all inventor ...more
Sep 17, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, history
While parts of The Evolution of Useful Things are interesting, for the most part, the prose is painstakingly dry. The book as a whole is certainly informative, but the way it's presented can make large sections of it hard to get through. For every engaging anecdote about the origins of Scotch tape, there's a long dissertation about forks and spoons, and what leading experts on etiquette at the time had to say about them.

This book is further hamstrung by the fact that it simply hasn't aged well s
Oct 10, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Pros: some fascinating backstories on how everyday objects came to be. Almost worth reading for those anecdotes alone. But wouldn't recommend this book for most readers due to the cons: Anecdotes are buried in a tedious theory of technological change that could be summarized in a paragraph but somehow is spun out to book length, the writing style is pendantic and dull, there's a shocking shortage of illustrations given that the prose is frequently describing an object, the author has an absolute ...more
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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
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