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By Henry Petroski


The Montréal Review, January 2015


"To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure" by Henry Petroski (Harvard University Press 2014)


“[An] engaging book… Reading these pages reminds us of how many spectacular failures have occupied the news pages for a week or two in our lifetimes… If Petroski’s account proves anything, it’s that the forces of the real world may eventually prevail on even the mightiest structures.”

—Bill McKibben, The New York Review of Books


The working title of my first book was “What is Engineering?” I had begun asking that question of myself in earnest the late 1970s. At the time, I had earned three degrees in engineering; I had worked as an engineer; I was registered as a professional engineer; and I had taught engineering. Yet when a layperson neighbor or colleague in the humanities or social sciences asked me what engineers do, I could not complete an explanation before his or her eyes began to glaze over.

What I needed to do, I believed, was to write a book on the topic. Writing was something I enjoyed doing, and I had found that putting words down on paper helped me think through ideas and questions while at the same time producing something that some editor thought publishable. I had been writing poems since student days and publishing some in little magazines; I had written a number of op-ed pieces that appeared in the New York Times; and I had recently begun writing feature articles for the MIT magazine, Technology Review. In all cases, I had been writing for a broad audience, and this progression from sonnets to 700-word essays to 2,500-word features gave me the confidence that I could write a book-length essay that would be accessible to the general reader. But how would I fit such a task into my daily routine, which included meeting obligations relating to teaching, working on engineering research grants, and being a father and husband.

It was a serendipitous epiphany that showed me that it was all possible. In the summer of 1980 I was attending an engineering conference at the University of Toronto, and during a lunch break I visited that institution’s library. On my way out I saw a notice that it was time to renew carrels for the coming semester. I immediately saw myself walking to my own campus each morning, arriving at the library as soon as it opened, and working on a book manuscript in the quiet and privacy of a closed carrel. After working there for a couple of hours each day, I would go to my office and begin to fulfil my other obligations.

Upon returning home from Toronto, I applied for a study carrel in the Duke University library. My first carrel assignment was a windowless cubicle, but it did give me the opportunity to follow a daily routine and by the end of some months I did have a book manuscript. Unfortunately, in my tendency to digress from a topic, it did not seem to answer the question “What is Engineering?” But the experience demonstrated to me that I could adhere to a discipline of work and produce a manuscript of some length.

On a subsequent try, I did stick more to the topic. Each morning I would write a thousand or so words and carry the yellow sheets home to transcribe that evening into my wife’s word processor. She was an early adopter of the new technology and graciously allowed me to use the machine after she had worked on her own writing throughout the day.

Henry Petroski (Photo couresy: Pratt School of Engineering )

In 1985, my book was published with the title To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design. In the course of writing it, I had come to realize that understanding the concept of failure was key to understanding engineering. Engineers strive to design machines and other devices that do not fail, and to be successful they have to keep the possibility of failure high in their consciousness at all times. The book attracted a broad readership, and I was hooked on the process of writing long prose explications on engineering, design, and related topics. In time, I acquired a study of my own at home and so did not have to begin my day in a library carrel, but I still follow pretty much the same discipline of writing before I teach and do other things.

Among the ideas I wrote about in To Engineer Is Human is the timelessness of the nature of the engineering design process and the things that can go wrong with it. The oldest books on the topic relate stories of failures that took the engineers of the time by surprise. Ancient, Renaissance, Victorian, and contemporary works describe failures. In fact, the kinds of failures that occurred millennia ago have been often repeated, mutatis mutandis, over the centuries. This occurs, in my opinion, largely because engineers (and others) do not heed the lessons of history. I continued to write about failure in its various manifestations, including product design, all the time noting that the same old mistakes continued to be made.

As the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of To Engineer Is Human approached, I began to think about how many new failures had occurred in the meantime. I began to conceive of a book that would not only add to the case studies included in the earlier book but also would expand on the ideas in it. Among these was the idea of design error. It had become almost a knee-jerk reaction to blame initially everything from airplane crashes to product malfunction on the designer, the engineer. However, experience reveals that many an initial explanation of a failure is misdirected. As often as not, it is the use and operation of technology that is the culprit in causing some thing or system to go awry. This is the subject of To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure.


Henry Petroski is the author of To Engineer Is Human, To Forgive Design, and sixteen other books on engineering and design. He is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.


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