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Henry Petroski's New Book Explores Home's History and Design

“The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors: A Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship,” was published on May 5, 2014

Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering at Duke University, where he has taught for more than three decades. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1997 “for books, articles, and lectures on engineering and the profession that have reached and influenced a wide range of audiences.” He is the author of nearly 20 popular and critically acclaimed books that have earned him the reputation as “America’s poet laureate of technology,” and also writes regular columns for ASEE Prism magazine and American Scientist.

Most engineers aren’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of writing, so how did you start?

I started writing when I was in college. I don’t know if I’d call it a hobby, it was more like an avocation. My serious involvement began when I had to write for a literature course, and one of my teachers encouraged me to submit an assignment to the literary magazine. That got my attention.

What did you write at first? Anything to interrupt the technical papers required of an engineering student?

I was writing mostly formal poetry and short essays, mainly because I had only limited time. It became a way to relax at night after a long day of classes and research work in graduate school. I wrote a lot of sonnets, for example, enjoying the puzzle-like nature of expressing ideas in fourteen lines and fitting the development of those ideas into prescribed patterns of meter and rhyme. I don’t know if I realized this at the time, but having to write such structured pieces was very beneficial. It forced me to consider carefully each and every word choice and helped me learn how to organize long articles and eventually books.

When did you start publishing your works?

Years after graduate school, I was working at Argonne National Laboratory, and during lunchtime I’d go to the library and read a lot about science and technology policy in newspapers and magazines like MIT’s Technology Review. I started publishing short 600- to 700-word pieces there as well as op-eds in the New York Times. Not only were the editors encouraging by publishing my work, but also they were very helpful in the honing of my writing skills. I enjoyed the give-and-take with an editor, getting down to the level of having to defend a word or organizational choice. And increasingly I was asked to write longer and longer pieces.

Did the longer pieces eventually lead to your first book?

My job at Argonne didn’t really give me a lot of  time to pursue a book, which is something I wanted to do, so I started looking for a position at a university because I believed that writing is more or less an expectation of what you do at a university. I came to Duke because the people who interviewed me were actually interested in my non-technical publications. They saw them as a plus and not a dilution of my technical work.

Tell me about how you came up with the topic for your first book, “To Engineer Is Human.”

I was in my late 30s at the time. I had three degrees in engineering, I’d been teaching engineering, I was a registered professional engineer, I had worked as an engineer, and yet if a neighbor came up to me and asked me what engineering actually was, I was tongue-tied. I didn’t have a simple, easily grasped answer. And I don’t think that was just my feeling, I could tell by the reaction of the neighbors who asked these questions that my answers weren’t jargon-free enough to be understandable by an average layperson. So my first book sought to answer in straightforward language this fundamental question, “What is engineering?”

In the course of writing that book, whose title became To Engineer is Human, the answer began to come clear. Fundamentally, engineering is all about design. Other academic subjects that engineering students take are really in service to design. If you want to design an airplane, you use structural mechanics and aerodynamics, but it’s really because you want to design the plane. That’s the first big idea in the book. The other main concept is that failure is central to design, because when you design something you don’t want it to fail. So the book basically is an elaboration on those two ideas. Engineering is design and design is about avoiding failure.

But that book didn’t make quite the splash that two subsequent books did, correct?

That’s right. A lot of people actually think my book on the history of the humble wood-cased pencil was my first. I wanted to write a book about how engineering is part of the larger human experience, how engineering isn’t just something that is off on its own, how it is fully integrated into civilization and culture. Those were the ideas behind The Pencil.

To Engineer Is Human focuses on large things like bridges and buildings, and while I was writing it I was thinking that everything I’m saying about design and failure really works for small things too—the most common things you could think of like paper clips and zippers. If in fact my ideas are valid—that understanding failure is central to advancing and achieving successful design—then I should be able to defend that thesis in a book concentrated on small things.

That was the book I wrote after The Pencil. It is called The Evolution of Useful Things. It’s also at its core about failure. It’s a refutation of the saying that “form follows function.” I argue that “form follows failure.” When things don’t work, they fail, and inventors and engineers look for ways to improve them.

What are some of the other memorable books that you’ve written?

I wrote a book on the history of American bridge building because there was a lot written about British bridges but comparatively little on American ones. I wrote another book called The Essential Engineer, which explains how engineering differs from science and also elaborates on what they share in common. That book is an appeal to recognize that the engineer is essential to solving real-world problems.

There is a book I published recently that sort of brings my intermediate books around full-circle, back to the first. An Alexander Pope couplet contains the line, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” While my  first book is titled To Engineer Is Human, my seventeenth is called To Forgive Design. Its subtitle is Understanding Failure, so I come back to the failure theme very explicitly and for very large structures like bridges and buildings.

Even if my books focus on different topics—like bridges or pencils or toothpicks—their general objective is to elucidate the nature of invention and engineering and to demonstrate how failure is an integral part of the process and not necessarily something that should be excused and forgotten. At the same time, each of the books shines the spotlight on a different aspect of engineering.

Tell me a little bit about your newest book.

It’s about a house on an island in Maine that my wife and I bought some years ago as a working retreat. It’s a very unusual structure, but people in the neighborhood think they know the story of the house: that it was built by a man as a form of therapy following a nervous breakdown. I guess that could be true, but certain features of the house itself made me question that story, so I started looking very closely at the building’s unique design and the nature of its construction. In the book, I treat the origin of the house as a mystery to be solved. I assume that clues reside in the fabric of the house, and it is my aim to find and interpret those clues.

What about the house made you think the neighbors’ story might be wrong?

The workmanship in the house is so good. I’m talking about how boards were sawn to meet in tight, neat joints; how paneling was nailed together; how windows were framed; how doors were made. The details are all just so good that the guy who did it couldn’t possibly have been that mentally afflicted. I wanted to reconcile this with the fact that even now, sixty years after the fact, neighbors don’t seem to think much of him or the house.

The house is quirky because he designed it and built it himself. I tried to look at it as a designed object and wished to tease out of it as much as I could about how it was built and why certain decisions were made. He obviously made some changes in his design as he went along. Before beginning construction, he had built a little wooden model, and you can see in a photograph of this model that the house didn’t end up like the model. This was another opportunity for me to talk about engineering, to emphasize that designs aren’t written in stone when they’re first laid out, that they evolve and they evolve for reasons.

There’s material in the book about the area where the house is located and background about alterations that were made on the house before we came to own it, but trying to figure out the engineering and design decisions that went into the house is the crux of the book.

Having so many books under your belt now and countless columns and articles published in newspapers and magazines, do you prefer one form over another?

That’s sort of like asking a parent which child is the favorite. I enjoy writing columns because it gives me a way to think about new things and it’s also a challenge to convey and analyze the implications of an idea in as few as 600 words. It’s a design challenge.

But I’d have to say I enjoy the books a little bit more. I’ve been doing the columns for so long that, while I won’t say they’ve become easy, the books are more challenging. It’s a lot easier to remember what you wrote in the first paragraph of a column than it is to remember after 50,000 words of writing what you said in the first chapter.

Coming to writing as an engineer, do you see a big difference between writing books or columns and writing technical papers?

I’d say that writing is writing. I came to this conclusion pretty early on when I was writing highly technical papers. There are certain formats you have to follow, especially with the technical paper, but to me that’s not writing, that’s organization. The writing is how you put words together to make sentences, how you put sentences together to form paragraphs. To me, that’s the real writing and I don’t see much difference between how an engineer writes a technical paper and how a non-fiction writer puts together an essay or a book.

So what’s next?

I don’t usually talk about what I’m doing next, but I’m typically working on my next book while I’m waiting for proofs of the last one. It’s a long process. It can take a year and a half at least. In the meantime, I’m always working on new columns, invited articles and essays and op-eds, which are often testing grounds for future book ideas.