THE EVOLUTION OF USEFUL THINGS by Henry Petroski

THE EVOLUTION OF USEFUL THINGS

KIRKUS REVIEW

The author of The Pencil (1989) enlarges his scope to encompass the history of a multitude of everyday objects, with dazzling--sometimes dizzying--results.

Grant Petroski this: Few writers can grip one's attention with the whys and wherefores of the paper clip and all its variations--Gem clip, Queen City clip, Gothic clip, Nifty clip ("the competition is very rough, and the Gem has a solid hold on its reputation, if not its papers," Petroski comments with typical wit). His curiosity is driven by a crucial problem in industrial design: Is there a single guiding principle behind the evolution of tools? The conventional answer is that form follows function. Petroski proposes, however, that form follows shortcomings in function: The original two-tined fork may work well enough for carving a roast, but it won't do for spearing a sardine, so the four-tined sardine fork is invented--and thus the pastry fork, salad fork, oyster fork, and so on. Tools evolve to keep pace with the specialization of tasks (Petroski mentions several times the amazement of Karl Marx at discovering 500 different types of hammer under production in Birmingham, England). The author runs--or, rather, spirals, for repetition is his failing--through the history of invention, piling up examples. Many of these delight--e.g., that of the man who, caught without a can opener at the family picnic and forced to improvise with his car bumper, invents the pop-top lid. Other stories illustrate the evolution of motorcycles, windshield wipers, Big Mac containers, toasters, and the like. Great designers--Jacob Rabinow, Raymond Loewy--receive the spotlight; strange histories come forth (e.g., how an obscure Minnesota mining company fathered Scotch tape). Using these men and their tales like 500 hammers, Petroski artfully bangs home his basic idea until our ears ring.

A lively history of design that would have gained from acknowledging the great design motto that "less is more."

Pub Date: Dec. 2nd, 1992
ISBN: 0-679-41226-3
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1992




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