Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are.” as Want to Read:
The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are.
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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 ·  1,114 ratings  ·  150 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 everyday as
Paperback, 288 pages
Published February 1st 1994 by Vintage
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Evolution of Useful Things, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Evolution of Useful Things

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.54  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,114 ratings  ·  150 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are.
Alex Ankarr
Mar 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
If you have a paperclip obsession then boy howdy do I have the book for you!
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
Alex Ankarr
Mar 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Loooooove this one. Only a little bit nuts.
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 ...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 ...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 ...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
Katerina Provost
Slow in some places but overall an extremely intriguing book! Loved it.
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 ...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
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
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: 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.
Behrooz Parhami
Nov 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
This gem of a book contains 250 pages of text, followed by 11 pages of notes, 9 pages of references, a 2-page list of illustrations and associated credits, and a 12-page index. It contains many diagrams, mostly from patent filings, exemplified by the following six figures I have linked in this review.
1. Cover image
2. Johan Vaaler’s first American patent [p. 61]
3. Webster’s definition of clip [p. 67]
4. Henry Lankenau’s paper clips [p. 72]
5. Types of nails
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.
Kaethe Douglas
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.
Did not finish. Not a good fit for me.
Jul 08, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: partially-read
Need to come back to this and finish it later.
Cliff Dolph
Oct 17, 2019 rated it it was ok
I think this book took me the longest of any I've read this year. That has a lot to do with the fact that I was gearing up for the school play while reading it, and the school year was gathering momentum (along with such other autumn business as canning and the corn maze). But it's also because the book often drags. It is interesting material, but it could be more interesting in the hands of a better writer.

Written in 1992, Henry Petroski's book holds up pretty well over time. Although he
Jul 08, 2018 rated it liked it
The friend who lent me this book credits it with forming his way of thinking like an engineer. It's didn't work *quite* like that for me. Petroski's simple, well-built and oft-repeated thesis is that, in designing / inventing / engineering objects, form rarely follows function. Neither the relatively simple paper clip, nor the massively complex railroad engine are "meant" to look or function the way they do. Instead, everything evolves through trial and error, through subsequent improvements ...more
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 ...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 patentillustrations or old photos. I think this book would be
Fraser Sherman
Oct 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Just like the title says, Petrowski looks at how and why we developed the fork, the paper clip (at one time people would just drive pins through papers to keep them together), the pop-top canand other everyday items, and why they developed the form they have. His running them is that "form follows function" is nonsense: new forms evolve primarily by trying to fix problems with previous design ("form follows failure") influenced by cost, consumer interest and consumers' view of what something is ...more
Nov 14, 2019 rated it liked it
While this book has a lot of really fascinating bits on all sorts of things they are often surrounded my meta on the death of the notion that form follows function and what makes a good/useful thing. Like popcorn popping, a new riff on some object flows into the same chapter as some other object making it a bit of a nightmare if you’re only looking for specific things. It does capture a fascinating account of the past due to its age (here’s looking at rhapsodizing on things like the replacement ...more
Randall Harrison
Meh, not really what I expected.

This book is much more a story about the philosophy and evolution of invention, design and engineering than about the useful things themselves.

Would have liked it a lot more were it more about the latter and less of the former. That part was interesting up to a point but was overwrought here. That stuff was not as interesting to me as the parts about the useful items themselves.
« previous 1 3 4 5 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Goodreads Librari...: Correction 3 18 Oct 18, 2017 01:14PM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Man Who Cycled the World
  • American Soldier
  • Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers
  • Ready for a Brand New Beat: How Dancing in the Street Became the Anthem for a Changing America
  • Why Buildings Fall Down: Why Structures Fail
  • Where No One Has Gone Before: A History in Pictures (Star Trek: All)
  • Black Magick: The First Book of Shadows
  • Native Stranger: A Black American's Journey into the Heart of Africa (Vintage Departures)
  • Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War
  • The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey
  • Black Magick, Vol. 1: Awakening, Part One
  • Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America
  • Critical Failures
  • Stumptown, Vol. 1: The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left her Mini)
  • The Yellow House
  • Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter
  • Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life
  • Mere Spirituality: The Spiritual Life According to Henry Nouwen
See similar books…

Goodreads is hiring!

If you like books and love to build cool products, we may be looking for you.
Learn more »
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