Petroski Honored for Making Engineering Understandable

Henry Petroski

Professor and prolific author Henry Petroski of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering has won the 2006 Washington Award, one of the oldest and most prestigious engineering awards in the country, for his accomplishments in making engineering theory and practice understandable to the general public.

Petroski is Aleksandar S. Vesic professor of civil and environmental engineering and a professor of history at Duke. He was presented with the award at a banquet in Chicago on Feb. 24.

The Washington Award, presented by a commission of seven engineering societies, is conferred upon an engineer whose professional attainments “preeminently advance the welfare of human kind.” The first recipient of the award in 1919 was Herbert Hoover, 31st president of the United States and a successful mining engineer. Subsequent recipients have included Orville Wright (1927); Henry Ford (1944); Hyman Rickover, developer of the first nuclear-powered submarine (1970); and astronaut Neil Armstrong (1980). Last year’s award went to Robert Langer, who studies and develops polymers for use in drug delivery.

Petroski has written broadly on the topics of design, success and failure, and the history of engineering and technology. His books on these subjects, which are intended for professional engineers, students and general readers alike, include To Engineer Is Human, which was adapted for a BBC-television documentary, and Design Paradigms, which was named by the Association of American Publishers as the best general engineering book published in 1994.

Petroski has also written books on commonplace objects, including such titles as The Pencil and The Evolution of Useful Things. His books have been translated into Chinese, Finnish, German and Hebrew, among other languages. He recently completed a new book, Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design, which is scheduled to be published by Princeton University Press in April.

In addition to numerous technical articles in refereed journals, Petroski also has written non-technical articles and essays for newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He writes the engineering column in the bimonthly magazine American Scientist and a column on the engineering profession for ASEE Prism. He lectures to both technical and general audiences, in the U.S. and abroad, and has been interviewed on National Public Radio, the Today Show and News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

The Washington Award is administered by the Western Society of Engineers and a commission including six other national and international engineering societies: the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers; the American Nuclear Society; the American Society of Civil Engineers; the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; and the National Society of Professional Engineers.