To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure


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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.


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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.

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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. Examination of the implications and consequences of engineering failures.

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Henry Petroski is an American engineer with wide-ranging historical and sociocultural interests. He earned a Ph. Petroski teaches traditional engineering subjects, as well as courses for nonengineering students, that place the field in a broad social context. One of the major themes that transcends his technical and nontechnical publications is the role of failure and its contribution to successful design.

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This theme is also incorporated into Petroski's The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance , which relates the history of the pencil to broader sociocultural themes. The theme is expanded further, illustrating the relationship of engineering to our everyday life in The Evolution of Useful Things Failure is what drives the field forward. This book is a litany of failure, including falling concrete in the Big Dig in Boston, the loss of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, the rupture of New Orleans levees, collapsing buildings in the Haitian earthquake, the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the sinking of the Titanic, the metal fatigue that doomed s-era de Havilland Comet jets — and swaying, crumpling bridges from Britain to Cambodia.

Though he acknowledges that engineering works can fail because the person who thought them up or engineered them simply got things wrong, in this book Dr. Petroski widens his view to consider the larger arena in which such failures occur. Sometimes devices fail because they are subjected to unexpected stress, like the Golden Gate under the weight of all those people, who collectively applied far more stress than the ordinary automobile traffic the bridge was supposed to carry.

Then there are the insulating O rings on the booster that launched the Challenger, which stiffened on an unusually cold morning in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Engineers alarmed by this issue recommended that the launch be postponed; managers overruled them.

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View all New York Times newsletters. Perhaps a good design is constructed with shoddy materials incompetently applied, factors Dr. Or perhaps a design works so well it is adopted elsewhere again and again, with incremental, seemingly innocuous improvements, until, suddenly, it does not work at all anymore. That was the case in one of the most notorious engineering failures, the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, in Washington State in Its design was not that different from the design of other successful bridges.

Engineering and Civilization: Bridges, Infrastructure, and the Sources of Success and Failure

But people wanted an elegant structure, so they built it narrow, just two lanes wide. Shortly after it opened, in winds of only about 40 miles per hour, it began to sway, eventually contorting itself until it collapsed. In a way, failure has shaped Dr.


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As a young engineer at Argonne National Laboratory he worked on the fracture mechanics of nuclear-reactor vessels. But when job prospects dried up after the accident at Three Mile Island, he took a job at Duke University, where today he is a professor of civil engineering.

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