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To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design

January 24th, 2011

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Book Overview:

The moral of this book is that behind every great engineering success is a trail of often ignored (but frequently spectacular) engineering failures. Petroski covers many of the best known examples of well-intentioned but ultimately failed design in action -- the galloping Tacoma Narrows Bridge (which you've probably seen tossing cars willy-nilly in the famous black-and-white footage), the collapse of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel walkways -- and many lesser known but equally informative examples. The line of reasoning Petroski develops in this book were later formalized into his quasi-Darwinian model of technological evolution in The Evolution of Useful Things, but this book is arguably the more illuminating -- and defintely the more enjoyable -- of these two titles. Highly recommended.

Book Review

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out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12796 user reviews
Engineering Books The moral of this book is that behind every great engineering success is a trail of often ignored (but frequently spectacular) engineering failures. Petroski covers many of the best known examples of well-intentioned but ultimately failed design in action -- the galloping Tacoma Narrows Bridge (which you've probably seen tossing cars willy-nilly in the famous black-and-white footage), the collapse of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel walkways -- and many lesser known but equally informative examples. The line of reasoning Petroski develops in this book were later formalized into his quasi-Darwinian model of technological evolution in The Evolution of Useful Things, but this book is arguably the more illuminating -- and defintely the more enjoyable -- of these two titles. Highly recommended.

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  1. skirmont@net.com
    January 25th, 2011 at 12:35 | #1


    This book has an interesting goal: To explain engineering failures. But instead of an in-depth failure analysis of the Hyatt hotel, Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and buses, the reader gets the same simple ideas repeated again and again. The Hyatt hotel disaster is mentioned in detail three times before its chapter. That chapter just retells the story and adds little value or insight. This book needs better organization and more real detail and in-depth analysis.

  2. Mark Mills
    January 25th, 2011 at 13:36 | #2


    The title suggests a coherent essay on ‘failure’, but the actual content is a collection of essays loosely brought together by the theme ‘engineering is about preventing failure’. Some chapters focus on the history of engineering, others on the nature of failure. If one essay bores you, just flip to the next chapter. The articles can be read in any order. All in all, a very thought provoking book.

  3. Robert I. Hedges
    January 25th, 2011 at 22:18 | #3


    This little gem is an analysis of engineering failures, and the learning that occurs due to these failures. While he is himself a professor of engineering, Petroski uses language comprehensible to the layman making this book accessible to almost anyone. During the course of the book he argues that engineering is part art and part science, and that as a discipline engineers focus on building safe, affordable, and reliable things (from paper clips to airliners) to meet a set of requirements. He goes on to elaborate that, being human, engineers make errors and sometimes spectacular failures ensue. The key, he argues, is that once errors are exposed, engineers can glean knowledge from those problems to improve future designs.

    He uses accessible examples that most people can readily relate to, from researching failure modes on one of his son’s toys (the components used most frequently failed first, just like a frequently used light bulb burns out more quickly due to metal fatigue and subsequent cracking), to the deadly collapse of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel walkways, which killed over 100 people. He also discusses easy to comprehend failures (suspension bridges in strong wind), and more intricate interactions, such as was revealed in the Chicago DC-10 accident. Throughout, he retains an aura of good humor and approachability, which makes this book far more readable than most books in this field.

    My only complaint about the book is not even the fault of Mr. Petroski at all: the font in the book is very small, and combined with small borders, the book is a bit tough to physically read. Small matter, though, as once you start the book, you will not want to put it down. Well done.

  4. Daniel Prorok
    January 26th, 2011 at 07:21 | #4


    To Engineer is Human is a surprisingly relevant book, despite being 15 years old now. Some of the examples may tax the memories of younger engineers and engineering students, but that’s exactly the point of this book, to emphasize the nature of engineering: improving what has already been done in the past.

    I, too, found the repetitive references to a limited number of examples tiring; I suspect this was done because Petroski had prior knowledge of these case studies and wished to minimize his research by drawing on what he knew about before writing. As an amateur historian of technology, I was also disappointed that few earlier historical examples were treated in any depth, the Crystal Palace being a notable exception.

    The book is an easy read. Henry Petroski’s prose is easy to grasp and flows well, holding the reader’s interest, despite the repetition.

  5. Karen – Old account
    January 26th, 2011 at 16:09 | #5


    I have to admit that I am a fan of the author’s works, so this review may be biased.

    I agree with previously posted reviews here that this work is repetative and covers engineering failures at a very high level. However, I believe that this is an important work for those that do any type of complex design or work with designs.

    I am not an engineer — I’m an information systems professional who believes that professionals should be able to review failures, even those of other professions, to better address risk in future projects. The author does a great job of introducing this concept in this book’s preface:

    “…I believe that an understanding and appreciation of engineers and engineering can be gotten without an engineering or technical education…. I believe that the concept of failure – mechanical and structural failure in the context of this discussion – is central to unerstanding engineering, for engineering design has as its first and foremost objective the obviation of failure. Thus the colossal disasters that do occur are ultimately failures of design, but the lessons learned form those disasters can do more to advance engineering knowledge than all the successful machines and structures in the world.”

    Take the word engineering out of the above quote and insert any profession there and the quote still works.

    I found particularly erie the background on the Comet, the first commercial jet aircraft. In the the chapter on Forensic Engineering, Petroski tells of a early Nevil Shute novel, _No Highway_, in which Shute tells a very, very similar _fictional_ story about a failed commercail aircraft called the Reindeer. I did not know that Shute was an aero engineer working for de Haviland at the same time as the Comet design. Shute is best known for his work _On the Beach_.

    Of interest to other information systems professions is the chapter entitled From Slide Rull to Computer: Forgetting How It Used to be Done.

    The bibliography of 11 pages may also be of interest to anyone researching this subject.

    This Petroski work is a good introduction in to his other works, as well as the topic of failure analysis….especially if you aren’t an engineer.

  6. M. Griffith
    January 27th, 2011 at 04:46 | #6


    I am not really sure how I came across this book. I think it was by following relevant links on Amazon. Anyway I bought this as well as The Evolution of Useful Things at the same time. I found this a very insightful reading in light of my occupation as a software engineer. Several of my coworkers recently had an email conversation regarding the quailty of software engineered products vs. “real” engineer’s and their feats of construction, bridges, airplanes and buildings all things that Petroski covers in details.

    Some additional thoughts on how structural engineering is different from Enterprise Application Software Engineering:

    1. –In general software is unlimited, where as Structural Engineering has natural laws. Higher level Patterns are pretty constant, where as within the created construct of software they are reinvited (Object Patterns, EJB Patterns)
    2. –structures have the added requirement of no death, where as Enterprise Software only has revenue associated with it, not as powerful a motivator as death.
    3. –software is interactive with behavior, where as a bridge is a bridge


  7. B L Lan
    January 29th, 2011 at 18:21 | #7


    In this enlightening book, Petroski, who is professor of civil engineering, has succeeded admirably in conveying what engineering is and what engineers do in a manner that is accessible even to my grandmother, i.e., the general public. His presentation, although somewhat repetitive, is clear and sprinkled judiciously with humor. Moreover, it is illustrated with familiar analogies, and also numerous mechanical and civil engineering examples including everyday objects such as paper clips, toys and knives.

    To engineer is to design, `making something that has not existed before’. Petroski provides insights into the design process (which involves computers extensively nowadays) and its limitations, and also the means employed by engineers to prevent failures in their designs.

    He emphasizes, however, that it is not possible to anticipate all possible ways a design can fail and thus failures inevitably occur because engineers are, after all, humans. Numerous examples of catastrophic structural failures throughout history are presented and discussed. All involved the tragic loss of lives (for instance, the collapse of two crowded suspended walkways onto the crowded floor of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency hotel in 1981) except the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridge in Washington State in 1940.

    Petroksi also discusses the failure analysis or forensic engineering that is performed in the wake of a catastrophic design failure to understand how and why the failure occurred. He argues convincingly throughout the book that understanding such design failures can advance engineering more than successes. Design failures, like other failures in life, should be embraced, rather than denied or ignored, and learned from. Great engineers, and great people in general, are the ones who heed George Santayana’s famous dictum: `Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

  8. Richard Frantz Jr.
    February 1st, 2011 at 00:01 | #8


    This book gives insight into how plans fail. If you are involved in any field in which plans are made and then implemented, be they in any of the engineering disciplines or in any field of human activity, then there is something to be learned from this book.

    But the writing is such that you will have to expend energy to extract the message from the text. The author apparently wanted to show off his vocabulary and ‘erudition’, so it is not an easy read.

    Educational but not suited for light or relaxed reading.

  9. Anonymous
    February 2nd, 2011 at 02:00 | #9


    Why do buildings and bridges suddenly collapse, or why do airplanes fall out
    of the sky ? Even though since the start of the industrial revolution the
    relative number of disastrous accidents has gone down, it is still a daily

    Some great examples are given (most prominently the walkway of a Houston
    hotel that collapsed during the opening ceremony) with pictures and detailed
    analysis. Great stuff even for non civil-engineers since with some
    imagination you may learn some more general design lessons.

    The editorial side of the book is less impressing, most facts and
    interpretations are repeated 3 or 4 times throughout the book (excluding the
    introduction and back flap) so I never got further than 3 quarters into it,
    preventing myself from another deja vu.

    In any way, a veryimportant and useful read.

  10. Ruth A. Caldwell
    February 2nd, 2011 at 04:29 | #10


    Here it is. I purchased this for my Dad, 79 years young. Finding anything for him, that he hasn’t seen, heard or done is very difficult. Imagine my surprise when he sent me a note stating this was the BEST gift he’d received in a long time! I also bought him “the Evolution of Useful Things”… same message! Both are super-duper gifts!

  11. Joanna Daneman
    February 3rd, 2011 at 16:30 | #11


    The answer is well explained in this book. By the time you built such a car, it might be so heavy it couldn’t move!

    The real interest in this book are the analyses of various disasters that should have been planned for, but weren’t.

    The most terrible engineering disaster (and the reason I bought this book) was the collapse of the sky walkway in a hotel in Kansas City in the 1980′s. I was just returning from KC when I heard the horrific news on the radio. The skyway collapsed during a dance, killing hundreds and injuring more in a dreadful disaster. I was very upset by this terrible event. Why did this happen?

    The explanation in “To Engineer Is Human” is really brilliant; the walkway was designed “properly” with a bolt that went through the beam supporting it. But it could not be built as designed because the bolt couldn’t be installed in the vertical support. Instead, the builders split the vertical support into two parts in order to install two bolts, and each part was then able to move independently, causing a shear force that eventually led to the disaster. A brilliant analysis and one that showed that despite correct design, the plan must be able to be implemented to work–or else the execution of the plan may doomed to disastrous failure.

    That lesson is really important when you are engineering anything, even software. You may specify an important feature, but if the R&D department cannot implement the plan, the product may fail to meet its goals, even be defective.

    The book is a bit “thin”–I wanted more and wished it were longer and had more detail, but I will say it makes its point and memorably so. After reading it, your eyes will be opened to how things are designed, how things fail and how engineering affects our lives.

  12. Scott E. Farley
    February 4th, 2011 at 23:15 | #12


    I originally read this book in 1992, lost the book, and found myself quoting stories so often that i decided to purchase it again! This is a great read for anyone who is interested in history or engineering. The stories are well told, with sufficient explanation of technical issues without the need of a PhD to understand the root cause of some the greatest engineering disasters in history. I highly recommend this book!

  13. Todd I. Stark
    February 8th, 2011 at 01:47 | #13


    A deep insight into complex problem solving; it isn’t done in a single brilliant step but in smaller steps while learning from our mistakes.

    This isn’t a very good book in my opinion, and it’s a shame because it’s a very strong thesis excellently presented. But all too briefly and too thinly demonstrated. A really great idea that seems to have fizzled for some reason.

    The basic idea is that engineering is commonly imagined (at least by people outside of engineering) to be a matter of systematically studying a problem and crafting a great solution. The reality, as the author explains very well, is that engineering efforts viewed in retrospect are more like hypotheses or good guesses at solutions. We craft something that works, and then see the weaknesses and learn from them for the next improvement.

    The point is that improvements are not simply a matter of meeting new customer demands or adding new features, nor even just correcting avoidable mistakes. Some corrections and improvements are neccessary because complex systems have aspects that really can’t reasonably be predicted at design time. The mistakes don’t just arise because engineers are less than perfect, but are an intrinsic part of the process of human beings engineering complex designs in the real world. There is rarely if ever even the potential for creating a flawless perfect design that anticipates all likely contingencies and second and third order causal effects of even simple changes.

    Whether a “zero defect” mentality is helpful or not as an ideal, it doesn’t reflect how engineering actually works, at least when complex systems are involved. The reality of human engineering is that intermediate failures are an important part of the process. Engineering methodology needs to take this into account, and make best use of it, or else lead engineers in a futile struggle for a perfect initial design and forever wonder why they fail.

    Although the I think the idea is very solid, useful, and important, this book certainly lacks the depth it needed to make the point and would have made an excellent chapter in a more detailed book. There are important issues raised here, but not answered, about how to improve the engineering process based on this insight into the role of failures.

    As a companion to this, I recommend Dietrich Dorner’s cognitive science account of the origin of planning failure in complex systems in “The Logic of Failure.” Dorner explains in more detail, with the help of his problem situation simulation research, why consequences are so difficult to forsee and plan for.

  14. Janefpl
    February 8th, 2011 at 03:53 | #14


    With entire books on the pencil and on bookcases, Petroski has established himself as an author who knows how to make anyone look at everyday items in a different light. Whereas these books explain how objects work, in “To Engineer Is Human,” Petroski cites why engineers are responsible for design flaws that cause failure. Being a professor of civil engineering, Petroski shows his expertise in this area. This book is for those who are interested in studying engineering, are already engineers, or are just interested in the “why” of accidents. To be able to understand this book, though, you should do some research on these accidents because Petroski assumes you have heard of them. These include the DC-10 accident in 1979 in Chicago, the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, and the tragic 1981 Hyatt Regency Skywalk disaster, which killed 114 people.

    Petroski is clever with his chapter headings, such as “Success Is Foreseeing Failure” and “When Cracks Become Breakthroughs,” which could be considered good rules for civil engineers to follow. I think this is a great book for those interested in engineering, if they have done their homework before coming to class.

  15. Christopher
    February 8th, 2011 at 08:17 | #15


    In this book, Petroski brings up a few good points. Engineering is human. Engineers, as oppose to what some think, are not perfect. They are not able to create a perfect design for the given problem. They create what they believe is the best solution for the given design specifications. They, along with others, test their solution, in theory. The majority of these solutions are created and succeed perfectly. Although most of these designs are successful, some are not.

    It seems to be most of the failures of designs happen when it deals with something big, including the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel walkways, which killed over 100 people, or the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. These failures become famous and the engineers are the first ones to be looked at.

    Along with engineering success comes failure. This is a part of being human. Human engineering will always have its failures along with its successes. When engineers build something, they analyze it to determine if their solution is the best solution. Sometimes it takes a failure for the engineers to see their failures and to correct the problem. This book tries to explain this and does in most cases. In some of the cases, it leaves the reader wondering what else could have been done or what needs to be done in the future to prevent these failures.

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