A look at the engineering principles behind ordinary objects and processes by the author of the bestsellers The Evolution of Useful Things (1992) and The Pencil (1989).
Petroski is, essentially, a cheerleader for civil engineers, who are at their most successful when their designs blend so completely into our environment that we forget about the magnificent achievements they represent. Here Petroski takes a look at the development of such things as pencils, zippers, paper clips, the fax machine, turbojet aircraft, suspension bridges, aluminum beverage cans, and the systems that heat and cool modern buildings. Since he has written before about the history of lead pencils, zippers, and paper clips, he tries this time to turn his emphasis more toward the engineering process involved in developing the object, but many readers will feel that he's merely recapitulating earlier work. (On the other hand, his chapter on the pencil nicely summarizes an entire book, saving new readers some time.) Petroski writes interestingly on the aluminum beverage can, but a widely circulated Scientific American article, which he draws from, covered this ground more succinctly and with more authority in 1994 and is still widely available on the Internet. On the grand if exotic subject of sewers and water management, civil engineering's greatest triumph and, arguably, the greatest achievement of the Roman and later the British empires, Petroski, oddly, loses his popularizer's touch, taking a historical perspective that never escapes the tone of a summary. Perhaps this subject deserves a book all its own. On the fax machine, however, and particularly on the development of the Boeing 777, Petroski flies to his customary heights. Petroski once again goes where many have gone before, this time with mixed results.
Not his best effort, but pleasant, readable, and persuasive, nonetheless.