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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

3.69  ·  Rating details ·  1,136 Ratings  ·  117 Reviews
Examines our deepest notions of progress and perfection, tracing the fine connection between the quantifiable realm of science and the chaotic realities of everyday life.
Hardcover, 247 pages
Published by Barnes & Noble Books (first published 1985)
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Dec 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 24, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Nov 24, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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.
Blake Kanewischer
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.
Kevin Hanks
Aug 03, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 08, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
It's goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo ...more
Nathan Albright
Dec 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Tim Williams
Nov 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Julie U.
Nov 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. Does that make me a nerd? It gave me a new perspective on how complex designs become successful. Not s bad metaphor for other endeavors.
Pat Cummings
Mar 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
Failure As a Design Consideration
Engineers today... are not superhuman. They make mistakes in their assumptions, in their calculations, in their conclusions. That they make mistakes is forgiveable, that they catch them is imperative. —Henry Petrosky, To Engineer Is Human

Henry Petroski has written a number of very enjoyable essays on the art and practice of engineering design. In To Engineer Is Human , he turns his gaze on a different and more serious aspect of engineering. In building structure
Jan 18, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Despite the fact that the chapter about the encroaching influence of computers on civil engineering is dated, To Engineer is Human has a lot going for it besides. It makes a fantastic case for why certain forms of post-failure analyses work better than others, why after-the-fact Monday-morning quarterbacking is (obviously and not-so-obviously) easier than preventing any and all systems failures, and advocating the merits of failure as a learning experience in a manner eschewing trite platitude a ...more
Sep 05, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in the art and science of engineering
I bought a used copy of To Engineer Is Human : The Role of Failure in Successful Design sometime last year & it finally migrated to the top of Mount ToBeRead.

Petroski examines the development of the role of engineer, and how for much of our history, design was a matter of trial and error, with error being the greater teacher. The first few chapters wax philosophical - comparing human development (infant --> toddler --> child) to learning engineering principles and using the process of
Jan 07, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I would give it 3.5 stars if I could. The beginning, probably the first three or four chapters, is going very slowly but it gets much better when he starts talking about different cases of success and failure in engineering design. The author is a civil engineer and he is giving very interesting information about some civil engineering structures such as Crystal Palace building, Brooklyn Bridge, Interstate 95 bridge in Connecticut, and Kansas city Hyatt Regency hotel walkway. However, he tries t ...more
Greg Talbot
As we age "as we grow, the toys that we could not carry soon can not carry us.
They are bridges built for the traffic of a lighter age..We learn that not everything
can be fixed.

Henry Petroski introduces the desire and ability to brainstorm, design, create and test as a human idea that comes to us naturally. Our nursery rhymes (London bridge, rock-a-bye baby)are essentially about structural reliability or testing for fatigue. As children we play with blocks, plan tracks for cars, build communities
A somewhat repetitive collection of case studies and essays on how past engineering failures become a driving force for innovation and invention, not events to avoid or hide.

I appreciated the emphasis on failure as a fact of life and that creativity is an iterative process driven by failures. "An engineer will always know more what not to do than what to do." pg.105

The case studies give interesting tidbits about engineering concepts and terminology, but it isn't a book *about* engineering as a p
Sep 15, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
He means well. He tried to humanize engineering with folksy banter. However, the meandering prose makes this book unreadable.

I gave this book a second chance, starting with the chapter about the Crystal Palace. I'm glad I did because the writing becomes less labored later in the book. The final chapters, where he ruminates on the changes that computers have wrought, and his impassioned plea for human expertise to use technology properly, are especially worth reading.

In retrospect, I think that t
This is an excellent book with a wider audience than the title implies. You won't be left out if you have little technical background. I was probably 40 or 50 pages in before remembering that I had read it upon publication in the early 80's which isn't to imply that it's forgettable but it's recognition of the great many professional papers and articles on similar topics I read across decades as an engineer. Petroski is a civil engineer and professor who is prolific and skilled in writing for in ...more
Jan 19, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In this book Petroski dives into exactly what his title says: the role of failure in successful design. Much like in learning any skill, we learn much more from mistakes than we do from successes, which is Petroski's central thesis.

What really stands out to me is just how literate Petroski comes across. The book is littered with references to poems and literature. He also uses a rather large vocabulary to make his points.

Overall I would say I enjoyed this book as a reminder about how instructive
Jim Morrison
Jan 14, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really like Henry Petroski's style of writing. I very well remember reading and enjoying his book "Simple Things". To "Engineer is Human" however I thought started out slow. I think the majority of the book could have been much more concise and to the point. However as I finished the last few chapters I found the wonderful stories and solid reasoning I expect from Petroski. So as always, it sort of depends on what you are looking for and you may well enjoy the entire book. There are 8 pages of ...more
May 01, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a very enjoyable read for me. Petroski presents the world of engineering in an enjoyable and approachable manner, using both prominent failures and a few resounding successes to trace the development of engineering throughout science. Probably the most enjoyable part for me was how Petroski ties engineering in to society at large, showing how each shapes the other. Structures are the kind of thing that usually only draw our attention when they fail, and this book does an excellent job o ...more
Mar 03, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
I love the stuff with the Speak & Spell, and I enjoyed some of the specific case studies like the Hyatt Regency hotel. It was all very easy to follow and Petroski did a great job translating the technical material into relatable human terms. He managed to put in some humor too like the goose chase he went on tracking down primary sources for the Santayana quote about learning from history, and how later references had actually misquoted it. Lots of good stuff in this book, yet it’s hard to p ...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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“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.” 4 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.” 4 likes
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