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To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design
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To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design

3.67  ·  Rating details ·  1,285 ratings  ·  134 reviews
"Reading Petroski's fine book is not only a delight, it is a necessity."
--Houston Chronicle

How did a simple design error cause one of the great disasters of the 1980s—the collapse of the walkways at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel? What made the graceful and innovative Tacoma Narrows Bridge twist apart in a mild wind in 1940? How did an oversized waterlily inspire the
Paperback, 251 pages
Published March 31st 1992 by Vintage (first published 1985)
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3.67  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,285 ratings  ·  134 reviews

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Dec 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: technology
Perhaps I rate this too highly. Problem is I love technology and its issues and Petroski is one of my favorite writers on civil engineering.

On the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, May 27, 1987, almost 1,000,000 people showed up to celebrate and to walk across a bridge that was designed using the same basic technology as the infamous Tacoma Narrows bridge. Only about 250,000 were able to squeeze on the bridge, and fortunately no panic occurred as the Golden Gate Bridge began to sway g
Rishiyur Nikhil
Feb 12, 2013 rated it liked it
Here, "engineering" primarily means big structures that can carry people: bridges, building, airplanes. Of course, in the real world, there are many other categories of engineering.

Message of the book can be summarized in a few lines: Engineering is a trade-off between meeting requirements safely, and cost (design cost, materials cost, labor cost), and aesthetics (dramatic bridges, buildings, ...). Primarly, it goes into depth about how a structure doesn't just "follow from requirements"; there
Jul 22, 2011 rated it liked it
What attracted me to this book when I bought it 17 years ago? Between the introduction and the back of the book, I got the idea that "To Engineer Is Human" would give me a greater understanding about the reasoning and effort that engineers put into their structures. Then and now, I am awed by the bridges and buildings I come across, and at times a voice in my head echoes that of Djimon Hounsou's character in "Gladiator," who, upon seeing the Coliseum for the first time, whispers, "I didn't know ...more
Nov 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A very well-written book that explains a lot about engineering in terms non-engineers can easily understand. This book is full of simple explanations that shed light on things I thought I knew, as well as informing me of many things I did not previously know. To give one example, I had read before about the collapse of the Hyatt Regency walkways in Kansas City. I thought I understood pretty well an explanation with diagrams showing showing how a design change in the connections by which the walk ...more
Nov 24, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
The first third of this book tried to explain why we need to learn from our mistakes. Um . . . I really didn't need a hundred pages to know this. The examples of the failures was interesting. But, then the last third of the book was again kind of boring. Unfortunately, this isn't going to be my parting gift to my intern as I'd hoped. I have to find something else to give him.
Jan 24, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommended to Susan by: Scott
The premise really is interesting: that it is from engineering failures that the most learning can be derived. Sadly (at least as a non-engineer reader), the writing shifted from pulled-me-into-it fascinating to merely slogging through.

Probably not something you'd want to pick up unless the topic itself really appealed to you.
Blake Kanewischer
Jan 01, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
This slim volume covers some of the most notable failures in engineering history up to the mid-1980s, and makes learning about engineering engaging. The comments about how computers will change the engineering profession are oddly prescient, and make me wish for an updated book.
Moira Russell
A friend of mine once described this book as 'like self-help for geeks.' I love it.
Aug 25, 2018 marked it as partly-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library-eaudio
I am an English graduate who makes his living in IT, working a lot with engineers. I came into this looking for specific insights I could use on how to make the things I build less prone to failure.

Ironically, I gave up on it because it was excessively poetic and metaphorical in places, and wordy throughout. The audiobook narrator's voice wasn't especially pleasant, either.

Not terrible, but not good enough for me to want to persist with it.
Jowanza Joseph
Jan 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
This is the first time I read a book that I felt bored by but kept learning something.
Elijah Abel
Apr 05, 2018 rated it it was ok
Petroski's background is in civil engineering, and the result is that this book contains almost exclusively examples of civil engineering failure. Sure, most of the engineering principles covered can extend to other forms of engineering, but civil engineering anecdotes make up a solid 80% of this book.

Outside of this, I don't think there's anything particularly insightful about this book. If you've been a professional engineer, then you should have already grasped the fundamentals it presents. P
Kevin Hanks
Aug 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
A very enjoyable read. I sometimes enjoy reading books by expert professionals who's main area of expertise is not necessarily in writing. The author is a structural engineering professor, thus my initial interest in the book, as I am a practicing structural engineer. The book is sort of an exploration into various engineering failures of the past several centuries and how those failures have served to enhance our understanding and improve future designs. He very expertly explains the oft-heard ...more
Dec 03, 2007 rated it liked it
The first book by Petroski that I read was The Pencil, a book about the engineering of the pencil. I think To Engineer is Human was the second of his books that I read, and in it he again shows a flair for popular engineering writing. For whatever reason, popular engineering writing is more rare than popular science writing, which makes Petroski's work all that much more to be treasured. In this particular book, Petroski looks at how the study of failures informs the engineering design cycle, an ...more
Mar 16, 2013 rated it liked it
Not everyone will understand or care to understand the stories presented here. Most people look at structures, software or electronics in a black and white manner. Either it works or it doesn't. Petroski takes you through the forest of decisions that result in a design with acceptable and tolerable risks. It may upset people to think that the airplane in which they're riding has been built with "acceptable" risks.
Karen Grothe
Jun 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book takes a look at some famous engineering failures (and one engineering success that I hadn't heard of before) and analyzes what can be learned from those failures. The author is a civil engineer, so most of the examples used are bridge or building failures. His point about the importance of engineers learning about failures to improve their own designs is well taken. The author's subtle humor was enjoyable to this fan of puns.
Mar 08, 2012 rated it liked it
Enjoyable read. It definitely got me thinking about the importance of admitting failure, allowing it to be publicly analyzed, and incorporating the lessons learned in educational materials for the next generation. At this point, the book does feel a bit dated -- had I read it in the 1980s, I probably would have given it four stars instead of three.
Niloy Mitra
Mar 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
A short but very useful book to read. I found the last two chapters really good as they talk about basic challenges and problems with automation and creative design.
May 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
It's goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo ...more
Nathan Albright
Dec 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: challenge2017
Although my work world has not reflected my educational background in engineering for some time, from time to time I enjoy reading books about engineering, and this author's works are certainly one I will keep an eye out for in the future because of his insights as well as his skill in asking the right questions of himself and of the larger world [1].  What is most interesting about the author's approach to engineering is his recognition that engineers are not merely stodgy and conservative but ...more
Edition is important here, though in every case the editions are outdated. The edition I read is the 1991 edition (printed in 1992, but last modified in 1991). All that's altered is the addition of an afterword (which refers to things like Challenger), but of course that afterword wouldn't be in the original edition, which was from 1982, or in any other reprints. There should be a new edition, as I'll explain in the review.

I'll be honest: I acquired this book because it has a copy of "The Deacon
Dec 21, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
Risk is an aspect every engineering student becomes familiar with whether chemical, mechanical or civil etc. It is why I am mortally terrified of distillation columns. It is why I was cowering in a corner while watching Deepwater Horizon. And it is why our safety in engineering professor couldn’t stop going on about the Titanic.

We become so attuned to preventing failure that we forget that sometimes it is inevitable and that past failures have enabled greater and more ambitious engineering feats
Timeo Williams
Nov 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
The book entails the process of innovation in the realm of engineering and construction, most notably, bridges.

Engineers operate through the scientific method. But as opposed to doctors, of whom their mistakes are buried within a grave, the engineer's work will be out in the open. So how do engineers innovate?

Well, believe it or not, mostly through failures.

The bridge created 50 years ago, still seems to hold up fine. The projected lifespan of the bridge and the factor of safety as a whole, p
Jan 02, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: technology
This book is purportedly an attempt to explain to the layman what engineering means and how it is done. It is really more like a primer written to the first-year engineering student, but it is certainly non-technical. Rather, this book is the author's ideas about the philosophy of engineering and how it should and shouldn't be done based on what has and hasn't happened on past projects. There is nothing that I take particular exception with in this book, but there is also nothing particularly in ...more
Rick Sam
Apr 07, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: engineering
I took this book on understanding about engineering. Petroski explains engineering failures with stories from the previous century. He says failure helps to advance engineering knowledge. He stresses on learning from them especially in engineering.

I liked how he used a Poet crafting a poetry with an Engineer. Both conceive in their mind and perfect it, yet they know they cannot make it perfect. His example of, "Failure by fatigue" by using paper clip was thought-provoking. A Great book and quic
Feb 11, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Brian Miracle
Mar 16, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: technology
Focuses mostly on structural failures and successes. I enjoyed the later chapters more than the first few chapters, which were somewhat more philosophical. The author wrote this book attempting to appeal more to a non-engineering audience, so, being an engineer, I would have preferred more technical discussions at times. However, this was an enjoyable and relatively quick read that would appeal to many people.
Matt Landby
Jan 27, 2019 rated it liked it
Meandering and dated text, while interesting, was only of moderate interest to the layman. Petrosky's main points are that engineering is a human endeavor, and thus prone to error. He examines this central premise from multitude of angles, recounting case studies and anecdotes, but even this does little to enliven a dry and ultimately repetitive text.
May 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
"Engineering design shares certain characteristics with the positing of scientific theories, but instead of hypothesizing about the behavior of a given universe, whether of atoms, honeybees, or planets, engineers hypothesize about assemblages of concrete and steel that they arrange into a world of their own making." (43)

"The paradox of engineering design is that successful concepts devolve into failures, while the colossal failures contribute to the evolution of innovative and inspiring structur
Apr 09, 2018 rated it liked it
I enjoyed the author’s wit and humor interspersed in the examples, but it was hard to keep my attention focused on the point. Sometimes the author would spend way too long on one subject and it was difficult to remember how it tied in. But the overall point of his book was a good and important one.
Carlos Mueses
Nov 03, 2018 rated it liked it
This book was a tough read. The first half goes into too many details trying to paint a picture for the reader and the point trying to be made often got diluted for me because I found myself zoning out. However, I found the second half much more enjoyable, specially the way it closes.
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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
“A good judgment is usually the result of experience. And experience is frequently the result of bad judgment. But to learn from the experience of others requires those who have the experience to share the knowledge with those who follow.” 5 likes
“No one wants to learn by mistakes, but we cannot learn enough from successes to go beyond the state of the art. Contrary to their popular characterization as intellectual conservatives, engineers are really among the avant-garde.” 5 likes
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