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TO FORGIVE DESIGN by Henry Petroski


Understanding Failure

by Henry Petroski

Pub Date: March 30th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-674-06584-0
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Examination of the implications and consequences of engineering failures.

“Near and outright failures have always been part of the human endeavor known as engineering and its collective achievements known as technology,” writes Petroski (Civil Engineering and History/Duke Univ.; An Engineer's Alphabet, 2011, etc.) at the start of this authoritative text about the interrelationship between success and failure in the engineering enterprise. The limits of everything structural—height, weight, span, reach, range and capacity—are (at least temporarily) defined by failure. Some real-world failures can be traced to design errors, but Petroski’s forensic analyses just as often uncover neglected or misused designs. While engineers are generally responsible for conceiving, evaluating, comparing and recommending a structure’s concept, “[q]uestions relating to cost, risk, and other economic, social, and political considerations can dominate the decision-making process and push to the background technical details on which a project’s ultimate success or failure may truly depend.” Though such abuses and can make for some hot-under-the-collar reading, Petroski remains cool, his delivery relaxed, even when he presents compelling evidence of the ruinous disconnect between engineers and managers. Though he delves into the grit of engineering—risk assessment, the mechanics of bridge making, the role of controlled failure, the geometrical challenges of building cranes—Petroski’s most gripping passages are  his Sherlockian dissections of engineering fiascos and the importance of learning from the vast archive of forensic analyses. Then he draws back to a synthesis of all the case studies, which “will eventually bring us to shift from a success-reinforced paradigm to a failure-averse one.”

A learned inquisition into engineering failures, and how we often fail again by ignoring them.