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The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are.
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The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are.

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  1,025 Ratings  ·  135 Reviews
   How did the table fork acquire a fourth tine?  What advantage does the Phillips-head screw have over its single-grooved predecessor? Why does the paper clip look the way it does? What makes Scotch tape Scotch?

   In this delightful book Henry Petroski takes a microscopic look at artifacts that most of us count on but rarely contemplate, including such icons of the everyd
Paperback, 288 pages
Published February 1st 1994 by Vintage
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Jan 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Beth Barnett
May 28, 2007 rated it it was ok
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.
Apr 05, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
Heyrebekah Alm
Aug 10, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Carmen something
Jul 09, 2007 rated it it was ok
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.

Frank Stein
May 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book can't help but change the way its readers looks at the myriad of minute things that surround them. The author has an uncommon ability to notice all of the little ways in which our objects are designed to satisfy human wants and convenience, and, even more importantly, how often they fail to. Henry Petroski's main argument is that every object's "form follows failure," namely, that every invention is related to some perceived shortcoming of its predecessor. Like a good engineer or innov ...more
This was more a collection of individual examples of design accreted under the concept that designers try to correct previous failings. I enjoyed some of the storylines, such as the fork and the post-it note, much more than the others. In other chapters I had a hard time remaining engaged.
Apr 12, 2013 rated it liked it
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
May 16, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Sep 22, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
Dec 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
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: ebooks, library_books
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
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.
Jul 09, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
As much as I like the biography of a thing idea, I'm afraid I didn't love this. I think Petroski just isn't my cuppa.
Jim Razinha
Aug 31, 2012 rated it liked it
Interesting, but limited in scope. Good observations that very little is revolutionary...most is evolutionary.
Jul 08, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: partially-read
Need to come back to this and finish it later.
Jun 16, 2017 rated it it was ok
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
Sep 04, 2017 rated it liked it
"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
Jun 03, 2017 rated it liked it
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
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.
Moti Dahan
Apr 13, 2018 rated it it was ok
That is just too bad, because all the basics are there, and yet I could not get past the second third of the book.

A surprisingly interesting subject, but sadly the the writing is not as good, and thus the author takes the potentially good book to the ground.
Some truly interesting stories are interwined with too many repetitions and too much elaboration.

Could be much better.
Dec 30, 2017 rated it it was ok
Interesting book which describes how simple items such as forks, paper clips, screwdrivers, plastic bags and soda cans were developed over time. You won't look at these items in the same way. This book had a lot of potential but it was hard to get through. Written in a dry style, more in an academic style. Would be more interesting for industrial designers than for the broader readership.
Ravi Mikkelsen
Apr 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Ever wonder how paper clips and zippers came into being? Why are they that shape and size? This book shows the evolution of these objects, and like his other book, To Engineer is Human (I haven't read Pencil yet) he weaves the human struggles of the inventors into the tales to make them even more relatable.
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.
Feb 22, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2009
(Dug review out of the depths of LiveJournal.)

I don't really want to know anything else about cutlery now. Or paperclips. Or fast food clamshell containers. Which I guess means the book did its job. I enjoyed it. I am sure the subject matter is not for everyone.
Zhi Chen
Jul 06, 2017 rated it liked it
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.
Jun 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
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.
Jan 11, 2018 rated it did not like it
So glad it's over...
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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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