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May 29, 1997

Book Review

Invention by Design:
How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing

by Henry Petroski

reviewed by Magnus Kempe

Henry Petroski is back with a new collection of fascinating essays about design and the essence of engineering. He describes very clearly and succinctly the problems engineers face when they design radically new systems as well as when they seek to improve upon existing systems. He offers meticulously researched case studies of paper clips, pencil points, zippers, aluminum cans, fax machines, turbojets, waterworks, bridges, and skyscrapers.

The ten chapters demonstrate for instance that we can comprehend and improve artifacts by critical analysis of poor engineering and failure modes, that competing objectives are likely to lead to the constant evolution of multiple designs, that factors of safety result in more reliable structures (would constraints, assertions, and exception handlers achieve similar goals for software?), that the success of one product leads to the conception and development of many derivative ideas, and that the appreciation of failure modes improves our identification of engineering problems which must be "conceived and attacked."

If we value the engineering part of software engineering, we should pay serious attention to the nature of engineering and design. Students and practitioners will definitely benefit from a careful examination of Petroski's essays and case studies, in addition to taking pleasure in the entertaining and educational value of his stories.

Contains a wealth of illustrations, an abundant bibliography, and a detailed index. The author has also successfully included in each chapter a one-page design challenge that should get the reader to execute what philosopher Hannah Arendt called a "stop and think": a pause to reflect on what has been explained and done so far, the reader being indirectly invited to explore the context he brings to his tasks.

- Paper Clips and Design
- Pencil Points and Analysis
- Zippers and Development
- Aluminum Cans and Failure
- Facsimile and Networks
- Airplanes and Computers
- Water and Society
- Bridges and Politics
- Buildings and Systems
- References and Further Reading
- Illustration Credits
- Index
(hardcover, 242 pages, 1996 -- list price $24.95)

Henry Petroski is Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University. His previous books include To Engineer is Human, which was developed into a BBC television documentary; The Pencil; The Evolution of Useful Things; and Engineers of Dreams.

This book and other books by Petroski can be ordered on-line from the Ada Home Bookshop, in the Quality and Design section.


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Page last modified: 1997-05-29