Petroski, Henry 1942–

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Petroski, Henry 1942–


Born February 6, 1942, in New York, NY; son of Henry Frank (a trucking company rate clerk) and Victoria Rose Petroski; married July 15, 1966; wife's name Catherine (a writer); children: Karen, Stephen. Education: Manhattan College, B.M.E., 1963; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, M.S., 1964, Ph.D., 1968.


Office—Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Duke University, P.O. Box 90287, Durham, NC 27708-0287. E-mail—[email protected]


Writer, engineer, lecturer, and educator. University of Texas, Austin, assistant professor of engineering mechanics, 1968-74; Argonne National Laboratory, IL, from mechanical engineer and failure analyst to group leader, 1975-80; Duke University, Durham, NC, associate professor, 1980, director of graduate studies, 1981-86, professor of civil and environmental engineering, 1987-93, chair of department of civil and environmental engineering, 1991-2000, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering, 1993—, professor of history, 1995—. Also taught at the University of Illinois. Writer and presenter of television documentary To Engineer Is Human, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Television and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Member, Institution of Engineers of Ireland; member, National Academy of Engineering.


American Society for Engineering Education, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, American Society of Civil Engineers, American Academy of Mechanics, Society for Natural Philosophy, Society for the History of Technology, Society for Industrial Archaeology, Sigma Xi.


Alfred P. Sloan Foundation teaching fellowship, 1963-64; National Science Foundation grants, 1973-75, 1982-84, and 1989-95; Illinois Arts Council Literary Award, 1976; National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, 1987-88; National Humanities Center fellow, 1987-88; Guggenheim fellow, 1990-91; Ralph Coats Roe Medal, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1991; Centennial Award as an outstanding engineering graduate of Manhattan College, 1992; Civil Engineering History and Heritage Award, American Society of Civil Engineers, 1993; Alumni Award for distinguished service, University of Illinois College of Engineering, 1994; American Society of Civil Engineers fellow, 1996; Orthogonal Medal, North Carolina State University Graphic Communications Faculty, 1996; Tetelman fellow, Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University, 1998; Institution of Engineers of Ireland fellow, 2000; American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellow, 2003; Eminent Engineer award, Tau Beta Pi, 2003; Washington Award, Western Society of Engineers, 2006; elected member, American Philosophical Society, 2006; American Society of Mechanical Engineers fellow, 2007; Distinguished Service Award, Duke University Engineering Alumni Association, 2007; Journalism Award, Society for American Military Engineers, Northern Virginia Post, 2007; Charles S. Barrett Silver Medal, American Society for Materials International, Rocky Mountain Chapter, 2008; distinguished member, American Society of Civil Engineers, 2008; recipient of honorary degrees from Clarkson College, Trinity College, Valparaiso University, and Manhattan College.


To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1985.

Beyond Engineering: Essays and Other Attempts to Figure without Equations, illustrations by daughter, Karen Petroski, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1986.

The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.

The Evolution of Useful Things, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.

Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1994.

Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.

Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1996.

Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.

The Book on the Bookshelf, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.

Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer (memoir), Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.

Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.

Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.

Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2006.

The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to journals, including International Journal of Fracture, Engineering Fracture Mechanics, Structural Safety, Research in Engineering Design, and Journal of Applied Mechanics. Columnist, American Scientist and ASEE Prism.


For civil and environmental engineering professor Henry Petroski, the civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical, and structural engineers of this world are the unsung heroes of history. Petroski has written several acclaimed nonfiction books that discuss the ways in which innovations designed by often-neglected engineers have tremendously impacted life on this planet—from the obvious achievements like bridges, which connect communities, to more mundane objects like the pencil and the Post-it Note. As he told Jennifer Howard in an interview for Publishers Weekly: "In this country at least, architects get most of the glory; engineers, meanwhile, tend to labor in obscurity." Petroski's books joined others that captured the reading public during the 1980s and 1990s, but MIT's Technology Review critic Samuel C. Florman praised Petroski as a standout in the genre, since he is also an engineer himself. "Only a practicing engineer can ‘feel’ what it is to do engineering and ‘know’ engineering with heart and soul," Florman pointed out.

Born in 1942, Petroski grew up in Brooklyn and Queens, two boroughs of New York City that owe much of their development to bridges of historic significance and enduring grace. The first in his family to attend college, Petroski graduated with an engineering degree from Manhattan College and went on to earn advanced degrees from the University of Illinois. He began his academic career in 1968 at the University of Texas at Austin as an assistant professor of engineering mechanics, and then spent the latter part of the 1970s as a failure analyst at Argonne National Laboratory, a government research and development institute affiliated with the University of Chicago. He joined the faculty of Duke University in North Carolina in 1980 and rose to become chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering.

As an engineer, Petroski specialized in fracture mechanics, or how and why things break. Of particularly crucial interest to this field are the flaws that cause concrete dams to crack and suspension bridges to collapse. A lifelong avid reader, Petroski also wrote poetry for some time before finding his métier in penning essays on technology for newspapers and magazines. He had always wanted to bridge the division between the liberal arts and scientific achievement, an intellectual gulf he began to notice as an undergraduate, as he explained to Howard in Publishers Weekly. "Liberal arts [students] sometimes gave the impression that they were superior because they were studying intellectual stuff and engineering was just technical stuff and we didn't know anything about culture and tradition," Petroski said.

The sinking of an oil rig in the North Sea in 1980, followed the next year by the ruinous collapse of elevated walkways inside the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel, spurred Petroski to investigate some of the more notable failures of engineering. The result was his first book, To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, published in 1985. New York Times Book Review critic Michael Markow asserted that its author "explains relevant engineering principles and how engineers deal with such risks in a way that nonprofessionals will understand." The book became the basis for a television documentary produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

In Petroski's next book, Beyond Engineering: Essays and Other Attempts to Figure without Equations, the engineering expert attempts to show how the process of engineering changes daily life in innumerable ways, and along with it, history itself. The 1986 volume contains thirty essays that discuss, among other fields, computer technology; and in one section the author makes a tongue-in-cheek argument for converting sports statistics to metric measurement. A Publishers Weekly reviewer declared the book to be "written with savvy and wit," and termed it a volume that "will delight engineers and lay people alike."

Petroski earned a great deal of critical attention for his 1990 book, a work that could legitimately claim to be the first of a genre. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance aims to be more than just the chronological story of a humble object. As Petroski asserted, the pencil and its development is symbolic for all technological advance. Though its creation was born of the accidental discovery of graphite, the perfection of the pencil as an artifact evolved by deliberate inventiveness, and what resulted was an object that nearly every literate person on the planet has used. "The story of a single object told in depth can reveal more about the whole of technology and its practitioners than a sweeping survey of all the triumphant works of civil, mechanical, electrical, and every other kind of engineering," Petroski wrote.

As a book, The Pencil's origins arose when Petroski, who was then new to Duke, developed a dislike for the standard-issue pencils at the university. They were blue, not the traditional yellow, and wrote poorly. He wrote a technical article about breakage of pencil points, which tied in with his specialty in fracture mechanics. "It sounds frivolous, but if you can't understand how a pencil point breaks, you can't understand how an airplane wing breaks," he explained to Richard Wolkomir in Smithsonian. In the pencil article, he wanted to include something about the evolution of pencil design but found source material on the matter lacking.

As Petroski explains, the history of the pencil began in the classical era, when Romans used rods of metal to write on wax. The instrument employed, however, was called a stylus and had a point so sharp that it could also be used as a weapon; one leader even used a stylus to stab another in front of the Roman Senate in a notorious incident. But it was not until a violent storm in Keswick, England, yielded a toppled tree with roots encased in an unusual black substance, which produced a superb line on paper, that the modern history of the pencil began. The odd discovery led to the unearthing of a large mine in England's Lake District, and for the next several generations, Britain was the leading manufacturer of pencils in the world. The pure graphite from the Borrowdale mine was encased in a cedar sheath for writing, and use of the writing instrument soared along with literacy rates. A 1790s war, however, cut off France from British pencil imports, and French manufacturers raced to make their own. In the process they discovered that a heat-fused mixture of refined graphite and clay yielded an equally good writing material.

Throughout The Pencil, Petroski provides arcane and significant trivia alike, such as why yellow became the standard color. The American writer Henry David Thoreau, for instance, came from a family that owned the most respected pencil-making business in the United States during the early nineteenth century; Petroski also offers anecdotes about and quotes from famous pencil abusers in literary history. Even in modern times, billions of pencils are sold annually. "The very commonness of the pencil, the characteristic of it that renders it all but invisible and seemingly valueless, is really the first feature of successful engineering," Petroski notes. "Good engineering blends into the environment, becomes a part of society and culture so naturally that a special effort is required to notice it."

The Pencil received many positive reviews. Smithsonian writer Dennis Drabelle, for one, observed wryly that "The Pencil is not without its, well, leaden moments. Professorially, Petroski tends to bog down his information in directions, transitions and summaries." But Jeffrey L. Meikle, critiquing the book for Business HistoryReview, found that digressions only added to the book's charm. "Exhaustively researched and engagingly written, The Pencil provides a definitive history of a common artifact."

Petroski's next work explores not one, but many common objects. Published in 1992, The Evolution of Useful Things contains essays on the evolution of the paper clip, the Post-it Note, the zipper, fast-food packaging, masking tape, and even the safety pin. This last object, as the author explains, also originated in ancient Rome, but only the invention of a protective sheath with an integral spring designed into it in 1849 made its popularity and myriad uses soar. Petroski explains why women's clothes are buttoned on a different side than men's—at one time, women usually had maids to help them dress, while men dressed themselves—and he sketches the decades-long quest to perfect the zipper. It was only in 1921, he notes, that galoshes with the device, made by the rubber company B.F. Goodrich, helped the patented slide fastener find its niche. Post-it Notes, he writes elsewhere in the volume, were created in the 1980s when an engineer at the 3M company grew impatient with the slips of paper that he used to mark pages in books, because they constantly fell out. He exploited a new adhesive that left no mark on the page.

Around the time of the 1994 publication of his fifth book, Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering, Petroski became a professor of history at Duke as well. His Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America was then published the following year. "Bridges have become symbols and souls of cities," he declares, but the engineers who helped make them safe for human traffic seemed to have been forgotten by history. The author explores the careers of five famous American bridge builders and describes their achievements. Along the way, he writes of the evolution of materials in bridge building, and he includes some deadly failures about a few spans that collapsed or proved dangerous in high wind. Petroski also explains the conflicts between bridge engineers and their architect colleagues.

Among the individuals that Engineers of Dreams profiles are Gustav Lindenthal, the first commissioner of bridges for New York City; James Buchanan Eads, the creator of St. Louis's historic road and railroad span over the Mississippi River; and David B. Steinman, the engineer behind the Mackinac Bridge that was erected in 1953 to link Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas.

As Petroski told Howard in the interview for Publishers Weekly: "Here the people play a much larger role" in the design process. "[I like to see] how they interact, their personal failings, their feuds with each other, their rivalries, their jealousies. I also just like the stories of how these things came to be." New York Times Book Review contributor M.R. Montgomery praised the interesting biographical sketches in Engineers of Dreams, further stating that "Petroski's seamlessly linked biographies illustrate a greater theme: engineers will push a technology beyond its limits when they forget the lessons of history. When there is hubris at the drafting table, it is as fatal as it is at a general's map table."

Petroski's next book was designed as a text for introductory college courses as well as a book for the general reader; it includes a greater degree of technical illustrations and diagrams. Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing appeared in 1996. It provides case histories concerning nine categories of objects. Among the objects are the paper clip, the pencil, the pop-top for aluminum cans—designed by its inventors as a technical failure, because it breaks, but not completely—and the fax machine. This revolutionary telecommunications device, as Petroski notes, appeared on the market long before it came into widespread use; its story allows the author to explain how technology requires an infrastructure to become both successful and ubiquitous. The Boeing 777 airplane and the Bay Bridge in San Francisco are among the other case histories discussed. "Petroski's mosaic approach provides a wonderfully comprehensive synthesis of what it is that engineers actually do," remarked Florman in MIT's Technology Review. "He maintains a light touch that is sadly lacking in most works about engineering…. Happily, an encounter with any one of Petroski's books should lead readers to explore his others."

In 1997 Petroski's eighth book, Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering, was published. Its eighteen essays originally appeared in American Scientist, a journal of a scientific and engineering research society, and they discuss the ways in which engineers sometimes inadvertently alter the course of history. He writes, for instance, of the long history behind the creation of the Chunnel, the English Channel tunnel between Britain and France. Throughout Remaking the World are literary quotes and interesting anecdotes, such as the story of Henry Robert, author of Robert's Rules of Order—still the standard procedural manual on conducting of- ficial meetings—who was a military engineer by profession. The author also writes of some famous slow technological starters. Radio, for instance, was dismissed as irrelevant in its early years because it was created as a method of person-to-person communication; only the realization that radio signals from a single source had a wide range of broadcast caused others to take note of its potential.

Other memorable projects and how they came into existence critiqued in Remaking the World are the Eiffel Tower, the Ferris Wheel, and the Petronas Twin Towers—recently the world's tallest building—in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. Petroski writes of the individual engineers behind the works and the creative processes that brought them to fruition, but also notes that for some, far more prosaic elements affected the final design. The designers of the Concorde supersonic airliner, for instance, were forced to take noise-reduction laws in New York State into account in the planning stages. The need to reduce air resistance required flying at very high altitudes, and this affected the design of its fuselage, which in turn restricted passenger area and made the Concorde's airfare available only to the affluent. Petroski uses Remaking the World to discuss the failure to establish a Nobel Prize in engineering, though its namesake had wanted to recognize achievements in the field. Forbes reviewer Christine Larson offered a positive appraisal of the book: "Petroski's plain-English summaries of engineering fundamentals make this a rewarding read for both working engineers and armchair inventors." Though she did criticize Petroski for straying from the subject matter at times, she concluded that "the book's real charm lies in the countless anecdotes and bits of historic and engineering trivia that pepper each essay, rich details guaranteed to stay with you."

Petroski's voracious reading appetite led him to write yet another book that was the singular work of its kind. The Book on the Bookshelf, published in 1999, tracks the history of book storage and display throughout the centuries. Petroski begins by describing the ways in which scholars in ancient Greece and Rome stored precious scrolls and then moves on to explain the systems developed to house bound manuscripts during the early medieval era. Book cabinets, locking chests, the turning lecterns of Renaissance Italy, and the rotating cases from Victorian times are also discussed. Moving into the modern era, Petroski evaluates the history of library shelving, including the innovative sliding shelf developed by the British Museum in the 1880s. Behind this recitation of technical data, however, is the story of the evolution of the accessibility of the principal objects themselves. Books were once so valuable that they were locked up for safety. "The images of chained books are among the most haunting in The Book on the Bookshelf," wrote novelist John Updike in the New Yorker, "since we do not instinctively recognize them as marking a forward stage in the liberation and dissemination of the written word."

The invention of the printing press revolutionized the Western world, resulting in an explosion of printed matter and the accompanying need to find new storage and classification methods, as Petroski recounts. Imprinted spines identifying title and author, for instance, did not emerge until the sixteenth century. Throughout the text are quotes from famous writers, and concluding it is Petroski's appendix of lighthearted suggestions for arranging books in a collection. Alphabetically by author, or by subject, are two of the more prosaic ones, but he also notes that volumes can be shelved by appearance or even according to their opening sentence. "The charm of Petroski's book, however, lies not in this rigorous chronology but in the marginalia … to be asked to wonder how and when readers first thought of arranging books vertically on a shelf; to learn that the ideal length of a shelf is 40 inches, so that it won't sag in the center—these are trivial and happy details in which any true book lover will rejoice," declared Alberto Manguel in a New York Times Book Review critique.

In Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer Petroski allows himself the luxury of a memoir and reflects on his own past and how his early experiences as a delivery boy for the Long Island Press led to his career as an engineer. The author "casts a fond—and analytical—look back at his own 1950s youth and once again discovers mystery and magnificence in the mundane," observed a Kirkus Reviews contributor. At age twelve, Petroski received a cherished gift: a Schwinn bicycle. Assembling his treasure himself, he realized that he finally had the means to make an income as a paperboy. Over the course of nearly three and a half years of delivering papers in the Cambria Heights section of Queens, Petroski learned the intricacies of his neighborhood and its house numbering system. He devised the optimum method of folding a newspaper so that it would not only sail effortlessly onto a porch after being thrown from a speeding bicycle, but would also land intact and still tightly folded. He learned, from necessity, how to repair his bicycle, tighten the spokes, fix tires, and keep his necessary machine running. He also developed a sense of discipline and order, important characteristics for a budding engineer. Along with the story of his own coming of age, Petroski recounts prominent historical events that flashed across the pages of the papers he handled every day. With his memoir, Petroski "offers a charming account of adolescence in a much different era," noted Booklist reviewer Beth Warrell. A Science News critic called the book "a refreshing look at what it was to grow up in New York when it was still a growing metropolis."

In Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design, Petroski once again looks carefully at "everyday items rendered invisible by their own ubiquity," commented Wook Kim in Entertainment Weekly. In a work similar to The Evolution of Useful Things, the author explores in detail how these everyday items did not emerge directly from a surge of design brilliance, but instead developed and evolved over years of practical usage, reconsideration, redesign, and re-use. He explains how the constraints placed on an item—its physical construction, its intended use, its practical applications, the sometimes conflicting characteristics of what an item needs to do compared with what it actually can do—mean that there can never be a perfect design that meets all needs and satisfies all parameters. Still, Petroski describes a number of commonplace items that have evolved to current height of design, in which practical considerations and design realities mesh successfully. He covers paper grocery bags, telephone keypads, paper cups, duct tape, Post-it Notes, paper clips, and other items that seem to exist in their final forms, but which are constantly being reimagined and redesigned by enterprising engineers and creative designers. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that "this book leaves us a little more conscious of the never-ending design process of our modern world." Petroski's "insight into the creative process by which common objects are invented and improved is anything but hohum," remarked a Science News contributor.

As with his Remaking the World, Petroski's Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering also collects previously published articles he wrote for American Scientist. In these articles, Petroski considers the monumental engineering problems and solutions that have attended the construction of large-scale projects around the world. He returns briefly to a favored topic, the construction of enormous bridges, but also looks at structures such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the Tower Bridge of London, and the Gateshead drawbridge at Newcastle, England. Petroski applies his expertise in failure mechanics to such tragic events and structures as the Texas A&M bonfire; the St. Francis Dam in California, the failure of which killed hundreds of people in 1928; and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. He also discusses one of the largest engineering projects ever undertaken, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China. Petroski "again meets his usual high standard when it comes to writing about technology," observed a Publishers Weekly reviewer. He "applies fine styling to the hardheaded world of civil engineering," concluded Gilbert Taylor in Booklist.

Petroski told CA: "For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by things large and small. I wanted to know what made my watch tick, my radio play, and my house stand. I wanted to know who invented the bottle cap and who designed the bridge. I guess from early on I wanted to be an engineer.

"In my memoir, Paperboy, I have written about my teenage years, during which I delivered newspapers when I wasn't taking apart one of my mother's kitchen appliances. The newspaper itself is a thing of wonder for me, and in Paperboy, I recall in some detail how we delivered it in the 1950s, folding it into a tight package and flipping it from a bicycle. My bike, a Schwinn, consumed a lot of my time and attention as a teenager, and it is a kind of character in my memoir. My family, friends, and teachers naturally also appear, but it is the attention to things as well as people that ties Paperboy to my other books.

"Like a lot of writers, I write books to try to understand better how the world and the things in it work. My first book, To Engineer Is Human, was prompted by nonengineer friends asking me why so many technological accidents and failures were occurring. If engineers knew what they were doing, why did bridges and buildings fall down? It was a question that I had often asked myself, and I had no easy answer. Since the question was a nontechnical one, I wrote my book in nontechnical language. I am pleased that engineers and nonengineers find the book readable and helpful in making sense of the world of things and the people who make things.

"There is a lot more to the world of things than just their breaking and failing, of course, and that prompted me to write another book for the general reader. The Pencil is about how a very familiar and seemingly simple object is really something that combines complex technology with a rather interesting history. The story of the pencil as an object has so many social and cultural connections with the world that it makes a perfect vehicle for conveying the general nature of design, engineering, manufacturing, and technology.

"Pencils, like everything else, have changed over time, and I explored that idea further in The Evolution of Useful Things. This book is about invention and inventors and how and why they continue to make new things out of old. In it, I describe inventors and engineers as critics of technology, fault-finders who can't leave things alone. Their quest for perfection leads to very useful new things, such as paper clips, zippers, Post-it Notes, and a host of other inventions whose stories I tell in the book.

"As an engineer, I am also interested in large things, and bridges are some of the largest things made. Engineers of Dreams is about the bridging of America, telling the stories of some of our greatest spans, including the George Washington, Golden Gate, Eads, and Mackinac bridges. It also tells the story of the engineers who designed and built these monumental structures, emphasizing that their personalities and the political and technical climate have a great deal to do with what bridges look like and how they work.

"Engineers do more than build bridges, and I have told the stories of many of their other achievements in Remaking the World. Among the great projects described in this book are the original Ferris Wheel, the Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, the Channel Tunnel, and the Petronas Towers, now the tallest buildings in the world. The stories of these world-class things are true adventures in engineering, and it does not take a degree in engineering to appreciate them or understand their making and their working.

"As much as I like large and unique structures, I have continued to return to more commonplace ones in my writing. The Book on the Bookshelf had its origins one evening while I was reading in my study. As I looked up from my chair, I saw not the books on my bookshelves but the shelves themselves, and I wondered about the first bookshelves. My search for an answer led me to the discovery that our practice of storing books vertically on horizontal shelves with the spines facing outward was not at all the way it was originally done. In fact, our seemingly natural way of placing books on shelves had to be invented over the course of many centuries. Writing The Book on the Bookshelf reinforced my belief that there is a fascinating story behind even the simplest and most familiar of objects.

"In Small Things Considered, I consider design in everyday life. Everything we encounter in our daily activities is designed—from the toothbrush we use in the morning to the lamps we read by at night—but nothing seems to be perfectly right. The latest fat-handled toothbrushes are wonderful to use but do not fit in standard toothbrush holders; the lamps by which we read seldom seem to have just the right brightness for the task at hand.

"In this book, I write about the frustrations of making and using designed things and what it is about the nature of design that makes everything flawed. At the same time, I celebrate the remarkable ability of men and women to triumph over the world of imperfect things. Invariably, we figure out creative ways to make do and to make new. Our more promising efforts we call inventions, and some of them lead to patents and to still newer, improved products, which unfortunately are flawed themselves. Thus the world of things is an ever-changing one, which makes it also an exciting and interesting world to write and read about.

"As long as there are things to wonder about, there are stories to be written about them. That makes me happy, because writing about things seems to be my thing."

Petroski continues to find things to wonder about in books that deal with design and everyday objects. Similar to his first book, To Engineer Is Human, Petroski's 2006 title, Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design explores how engineering has improved through the experience of design failures. As Petroski noted on, "The paradox is that when we model future designs on past successes, we are inviting failure down the line; when we take into account past failures and anticipate potential new ways in which failure can occur, we are more likely to produce successful designs." Thus, shipbuilders learned important lessons from the disaster of the first and last sailing of the Titanic. Petroski further commented: "My book contains many other illustrative examples of the interplay between success and failure in the evolution of designs, ranging from the small to the large. These include medicine bottles, slide projectors, skyscrapers, and long-span bridges." Writing in Associated Content, Eve Lichtgarn noted that Success through Failure "ac- cepts that mistakes cannot, and perhaps should not be eliminated." Lichtgarn further observed: "Its message is that the best to be hoped for was expressed by Yogi Berra, who said, ‘I don't want to make the wrong mistake.’" Booklist contributor Bryce Christensen concluded: "Lucid and concise, this study invites nonspecialists to share in the challenge of trial-and-error engineering." More praise came from Architectural Science Review when a contributor called Success through Failure "an excellent read, and it is hard to put down."

For his 2007 work, Petroski once again chose a single ubiquitous piece of design engineering, just as he did in his 1990 work The Pencil. In The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, the author traces the development of this all but invisible bit of simple technology. Petroski notes that fossilized teeth have demonstrated grooves that suggest the use of primitive toothpicks. However, mass production of the toothpick did not begin until the nineteenth century, and it was the result of the efforts of one man, Massachusetts businessman Charles Forster, who encountered handmade Portuguese toothpicks on a trip to Brazil. He thereafter teamed up with a shoe-peg manufacturer, opening a factory in Maine to mass-produce toothpicks. Petroski traces not only the engineering history of the toothpick, however, but comments on its cultural reception as well. He details the changing etiquette surround its use around the globe, employing literary and historical references. Gilbert Taylor, writing in Booklist, felt that "Petroski's literary references (and the fact that he found any) are just one of the many charms of this book." Taylor went on to term The Toothpick a book that is "sure to delight Petroski fans." A Kirkus Reviews critic also had praise for this book, calling it "an educational and savory meal, overdone but still flavorful." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented: "Although some readers may feel [Petroski] pushes the limits of the ‘history of ordinary objects’ genre, there's still enough intriguing detail, even in the minute evolutions of toothpick etiquette, to keep readers engaged." Library Journal reviewer James A. Buczynski found The Toothpick "a fascinating read."



Petroski, Henry, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.

Petroski, Henry, Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.


American Scientist, July-August, 1996, Edwin T. Layton, review of Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America, p. 390.

Architectural Science Review, June 1, 2006, "Design to Prevent Failure," p. 211; September 1, 2006, "How to Design Successful Structures," p. 317.

Ascribe Higher Education News Service, March 28, 2002, "Duke University Engineer Turns His Intellectual Curiosity to His Days Delivering Newspapers in Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer"; September 22, 2003, "Duke University Engineer's Latest Book Focuses on Design of Everyday Things," review of Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design.

ASEE Prism, February, 2000, Viva Hardigg, "The Poet Laureate of Technology," pp. 24-26.

Atlantic, January, 1990, Cullen Murphy, review of The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, p. 94.

Booklist, April 15, 1986, Mary Ellen Sullivan, review of Beyond Engineering: Essays and Other Attempts to Figure without Equations, pp. 1169-1170; September 1, 1995, Gilbert Taylor, review of Engineers of Dreams, p. 24; October 15, 1996, Bryce Christensen, review of Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing, p. 390; December 1, 1997, Gilbert Taylor, review of Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering, p. 602; August, 1999, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Book on the Bookshelf, p. 1990; March 1, 2002, Beth Warrell, review of Paperboy, p. 1081; August, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering, p. 1885; March 15, 2006, Bryce Christensen, review of Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design, p. 12; September 15, 2007, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, p. 11.

Business History Review, summer, 1990, Jeffrey L. Meikle, review of The Pencil, p. 334.

Chicago Tribune, May 17, 1992, review of To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, sec. 8, p. 14.

Economist, February 10, 1990, review of The Pencil, p. 93.

Entertainment Weekly, September 26, 2003, Wook Kim, review of Small Things Considered, p. 99.

Forbes, March 9, 1998, Christine Larson, review of Remaking the World, p. S163.

Insight on the News, January 25, 1993, Woody West, review of The Evolution of Useful Things, p. 24; December 18, 1995, Matthys Levy, review of Engineers of Dreams, p. 25.

Journal of the American Medical Association, May 28, 1997, Dwight K. Oxley, review of Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering, p. 1651.

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1997, review of Remaking the World, p. 1694; February 1, 2002, review of Paperboy, p. 166; August 1, 2003, review of Small Things Considered, p. 1008; July 1, 2004, review of Pushing the Limits, p. 621; July 15, 2007, review of The Toothpick.

Libraries & Culture, spring, 2001, Nancy Kuhl, review of The Book on the Bookshelf, p. 390.

Library Journal, December, 1997, Mark L. Shelton, review of Remaking the World, p. 144; August, 1999, Paul A. D'Alessandro, review of The Book on the Bookshelf, p. 90; August, 2004, Sara Tompson, review of Pushing the Limits, p. 115; March 15, 2006, James A. Buczynski, review of Success through Failure, p. 96; August 1, 2007, James A. Buczynski, review of The Toothpick, p. 115.

Library Quarterly, July, 2000, Norman D. Stevens, review of The Book on the Bookshelf, p. 413.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 4, 1986, Peter DeLeon, review of Beyond Engineering, p. 4.

Mechanical Engineering-CIME, September, 2000, review of The Book on the Bookshelf, p. 105.

Mineralogical Record, March, 2002, John Updike, review of The Book on the Bookshelf, p. 155.

MIT's Technology Review, August-September, 1997, Samuel C. Florman, review of Invention by Design, p. 64.

New Criterion, November, 1999, John Derbyshire, review of The Book on the Bookshelf, p. 71.

New Statesman and Society, September 3, 1993, Carl Gardner, review of The Evolution of Useful Things, p. 40.

New Yorker, October 4, 1999, John Updike, "Groaning Shelves," pp. 106-110.

New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1985, Michael Markow, review of To Engineer Is Human, p. 25; October 15, 1995, M.R. Montgomery, "To Get to the Other Side," p. 22; September 26, 1999, Alberto Manguel, "Up against the Wall," p. 9.

Publishers Weekly, March 7, 1986, review of Beyond Engineering, p. 86; July 31, 1995, review of Engineers of Dreams, p. 63; September 4, 1995, Jennifer Howard, "Henry Petroski: Bridges as Archetypal Structures," profile of Henry Petroski, p. 43; September 30, 1996, review of Invention by Design, p. 69; November 10, 1997, review of Remaking the World, p. 67; July 5, 1999, review of The Book on the Bookshelf, p. 46; February 25, 2002, review of Paperboy, p. 52; July 21, 2003, review of Small Things Considered, p. 183; July 12, 2004, review of Pushing the Limits, p. 56; June 11, 2007, review of The Toothpick, p. 46.

Science, May 18, 1990, Robert Friedel, review of The Pencil, p. 894; May 21, 1993, Steven Lubar, review of The Evolution of Useful Things, p. 1166; October 7, 1994, Robert Mark, review of Design Paradigms, p. 146; April 19, 1996, Emory L. Kemp, review of Engineers of Dreams, p. 363.

Science News, September 28, 2002, review of Paperboy, p. 207; November 1, 2003, review of Small Things Considered, p. 287; September 23, 2006, review of Success through Failure, p. 207.

Sciences, March-April, 1993, George Basalla, review of The Evolution of Useful Things, p. 40; May-June, 1998, Laurence A. Marschall, review of Remaking the World, p. 44.

Smithsonian, October, 1990, Dennis Drabelle, review of The Pencil, p. 202; October, 1993, Richard Wolkomir, "A Chronicler of Thingamabobs and Doohickeys," p. 133.

Time, December 21, 1992, review of The Evolution of Useful Things, p. 79.

U.S. News & World Report, January 22, 1990, Lewis J. Lord, "The Little Artifact That Could," review of The Pencil, p. 63.

Washington Post Book World, December 29, 1996, Curt Suplee, review of Invention by Design, p. 8.

Wilson Quarterly, winter, 1996, Edward Tenner, review of Engineers of Dreams, p. 91; summer, 1998, Miriam R. Levin, review of Remaking the World, p. 103.


Associated Content, (June 18, 2008), Eve Lichtgarn, review of Success through Failure.

Duke University Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Web site, (June 18, 2008), biography of Henry Petroski.

Morning News Web site, (December 6, 2005), Robert Birnbaum, "Birnbaum v. Henry Petroski," interview with Henry Petroski., (December 6, 2005), "Meet the Pencil Professor," profile of Henry Petroski., (June 18, 2008), interview with Henry Petroski.