To Engineer is Human (Book Review)

Tue Apr 24, 2007 6:58:36 pm by Dustin
Filed under Book Review, General, Payroll, Tools and Tricks

Full Title: To Engineer is Human: the Role of Failure is Successful Design by Henry Petrosky
ISBN: 0-679-73416-3
Get it cheap.

Summary: The theme of this book is: why do engineers and their work fail? You might be wondering why the Shuttle crashed in the 80s. Well some would say it was that bloody O-ring that could not go from negative 400 degrees to positive 400 degrees in half a second. Others might say NASA never gets anything right. Although the former may be correct, you might wonder why does NASA fail. Well engineers, just like the rest of us, are human, and, just like the rest of us, they just plain make mistakes sometimes. The thing is when they fail, everybody knows about it because more often than not, people die. Sadly it is true, but every 10 years or so, there is an engineering project which ends up kills those who are using it.

To Engineer is Human argues that although, they may be failing, each time they come out ahead. For example, in the 40s the Tacoma Narrows Bridge fell down. At the time there were only a handful of bridge of this size in the world, so nobody really knew how to build one at all. After it fell, standards, checks and balances were established to prevent it from happening again. Engineers, again like the rest of, learn from their mistakes.

What I thought: This book was quite interesting. Having a degree in engineering myself, the humor and passive phrasing was right up my alley. During most books, I end up getting bored toward the end as the author is running out of things to talk about. This book was different. There was content until the end.

It might seem that any logical engineer would study fail practices in order to not make the same mistakes. Petroski shows how they are required to know the information and how failures change curriculum for students. Our failures bring us stronger, better, bigger projects to meet our growing need in the world.

I would suggest all past, present, and future engineers to read this book or anybody who just might think it was interesting.


  1. James

    My uncle gave me a copy of this book back in high school. It’s a very good look at the engineering process and how failures can result from ignoring proper methodologies or even despite them. He references several well known examples and ties them into the themes. It’s mostly mechanical/civil oriented, but I think the other branches can appreciate it too.

    Incidentally, a prof showed a PBS adaptation of the book in one of my classes. While Petroski is a good author, he’s a terrible narrator. It was impossible to stay awake.

    By the way, your comment form appears to have issues in IE 6. It keeps changing widths as I type, and the text disappears off the right edge for several characters before wrapping.

  2. Ray

    @IE6 don’t conform, make HIM change!

    I really like the idea of book reviews with summaries, it’s like I’m reading without having to read.