Book Review: To Engineer Is Human

To Engineer Is Human:  The Role Of Failure In Successful Design, by Henry Petroski

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 feel within themselves a tension between often well-disguised daring and a strong desire to avoid failure, and between the poetry of the artist and the abstract knowledge of the scientist.  The author’s ability not only to understand this tension but also to discuss the iterative back and forth where success breeds failure as people trim from factors of safety until something breaks and where failure breeds success as it leads people to research what went wrong so that they can do it better next time makes this a book that ought to be required reading for engineers, and for those who wish to understand the human tendency to reach for the stars and to rise up after failure over and over again.

This book is organized as a series of connected essays that deal with the issues of failure (mostly) and success within a wide variety of engineering disciplines, especially but not limited to structural engineering.  He writes about what it means to be human, about how falling down (failing) is a part of growing up.  He writes about lessons from play and from life, and includes in his text “The Deacon’s Masterpiece” by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  He discusses engineering designs as hypotheses that succeed as they last and are disproven when they fail.  He discusses design as being similar to one’s choice about how to get from one place to another, and as a process of revision similar to an author working on a novel.  He discusses the way that some failures are accidents waiting to happen, and how there is safety in numbers of successful trials that demonstrate that one’s factors of safety are reasonable.  He discusses how cracks become breakthroughs as they inspire others to solve problems and achieve advances, gives a discussion of the success of the Crystal Palace in London’s great exhibition, the ups and downs of bridges, and the importance of forensic engineering and engineering fiction.  As the book closes the author makes some critical comments about our reliance on computers as well as discussions about chaos and the limits of design.

The contents of the book demonstrate that not only is the author aware of the way that engineering is both an art and a science, but that the human desire to grow and improve, which often means learning from failure, is something that engineering shares with a variety of subjects, many of which I am fond of and interested in.  In life, it is our struggles that help us to grow and improve, as those who have little or no struggles have nothing to test their resolve and to build their strength and give them insight into what works, which can often be understood by what does not work.  Yet at the same time the author reflects that as people we can heap too great of burdens upon ourselves just as surely as we do the same to our structures and our creations, with disastrous results.  It is in developing a sound intuition for what works even as we seek to better understand our world and go beyond what has been done before, while remaining humble in the face of our ignorance, that we grow.  This book is a sound reminder that we are not as wise as we think we are, and that our arrogance and our disinterest in learning about history often lead us over and over again into the same types of failures until we finally get it right.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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