Invention by Design by Henry Petroski Published Book Report

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Invention by Design, by Henry Petroski, published in Cambridge, MA by the Harvard University Press in 1996. Specifically, it will discuss what in the book is relevant to the Mechanical Engineering program, the author's main points, and whether these points are valid or invalid. Henry Petroski's book takes engineering to a level that just about anyone can understand, and makes it interesting even to the layperson. This book is not only an excellent introduction to the many facets of engineering; it is also a fascinating look into engineering by example, from the simple paper clip to the complicated Boeing 777 aircraft. It is a fascinating look into what makes good engineering, and what engineers actually do, and should be required reading for any engineering student.


On first glance, "Invention by Design" seems to be simply a book about engineering. However, the author has several differing thoughts and ideas about the subject, and he attempts to illustrate them all with this volume. Early in the Introduction, he states one of his main purposes for writing the book: "This book attempts to make sense of many of the interrelated aspects of engineering" (Petroski 1-2). To do this, Petroski uses illustrations and examples of engineers and engineering processes, case studies, and simple illustrations of everyday objects to accomplish his goals and establish his main points. Some examples of these interesting case studies are the paper clip and the pencil, both everyday objects that we give little thought to, but took great engineering to create.

Many critical issues in the book are helpful to the reader, and make the book more effective and understandable. First, the author always attempts to make the subject matter interesting and easy to read. By doing so, Petroski makes engineering seem more palatable and comprehensible to the non-engineer, but even more so, he makes the world of engineering tantalizing, which is one of his goals (and one of the critical issues) for writing the book. For example, in the case study of the Boeing 777, Petroski covers such critical issues as how computers are essential to the modern day aircraft design, and how computers interact with other aviation functions of the aircraft. This critical issue of computers in design and engineering carries throughout the book, and shows not only how computers can aid engineers in their daily work, but also how they are critical in many design areas of safety and testing. Petroski shows how computers are used in every facet of engineering, and refers to them in nearly every case study, from the fax machine to the aircraft and the suspension bridge. The author illustrates how computers are used every day, in every facet of engineering, and so, the engineering student should get familiar with computers, if they are not already.

Another critical issue in the book is how the case studies are presented. Each study begins with a bit of history, and then moves into the critical issues involved in the design and engineering of the object, such as the sewers of Paris as a precursor to the evolution of water quality engineering. Had the case studies taken a different approach, the book might not have met its goal of "making sense of many of the interrelated aspects of engineering," but because of these critical inclusions, the book not only meets, but exceeds its goals. It is clear that engineering is a vital force in the modern world, and that just about every action the engineer attempts can be critical in some form or another.

Ultimately, the critical issues and topics of discussion in the book all point to how engineering has evolved and changed as it has become more advanced and technologically based. Engineering is a precise science, and as such, it is incredibly important to get it right. A fax machine may not create a life-threatening situation, and yet, many functions of engineering are incredibly important to public safety and well being. Engineering can mean the difference between life and death in many situations, and this book helps show how important getting it right can be. The author's points are all extremely valid to the study and understanding of engineering, and each of the case studies and histories help get his points and critical issues across, while illustrating how vitally important engineering is to almost every facet of modern life.

The author's use of language adds to the book's readability and interest. While a book of this type could have been dry and boring to even the most dedicated engineer, the book is neither and this is a direct result of the author's writing style and use of the language. Petroski uses everyday language that is understandable by just about anyone, and he uses interesting analogies to keep the reader focused and interested in the subject. For example, this simple explanation of the paper clip really captures the essence of Petroski's style and use of simple language to convey complex ideas. "The paper clip works because its loops can be spread apart just enough to get it around some papers and, when released, can spring back to grab the papers and hold them" (Petroski 9). This simplicity of this description contradicts its' complexity. A paper clip is a simple object that is really quite difficult to define, but Petroski does it without sounding like a dictionary, or even, an engineer. This writing style permeates the book, and helps keep it interesting and effective.

By breaking the book down into individual chapters which cover different types of engineering and engineering problems, the book flows well from chapter to chapter, and does not bog down in technicalities that might bore the layperson. Petroski uses a variety of case studies in different areas to illustrate every aspect of engineering, from aviation to structural and technological, so anyone studying engineering will find something interesting and useful in the book.

The book was quite informative in a number of ways, from how a fax machine works, to the development of structural engineering in aviation and building. The small sections on the history of the different types of engineering helped pull modern engineering into focus, and show its evolution. The section on pressure and metal fatigue in aircraft was especially interesting, and shows how we take many areas of engineering totally for granted today, but when they were first developed, they were quite thorny problems. It seems that if an engineering student were undecided on which type of engineering to study, this book might make areas clearer, and point the student in the right direction for their own interests and talents.

Petroski's book has many things in common with two other books we will study in this course, "Designing Engineers," by Louis L. Bucciarelli, and "Air Disasters: The Truth Behind the Tragedies," by Mike Sharpe. Clearly, "Designing Engineers" and "Invention by Design" are both books about engineering. Interestingly, they both use case studies to illustrate the many facets of engineering. Just as Petroski uses pencils and paper clips as examples, Bucciarelli uses an x-ray inspection system for airports, a photoprint machine, and a residential photovoltaic energy system x-ray machine as his examples of textbook engineering. The major difference between the two is that Bucciarelli's book is more technical in nature, while Petroski's is more basic and more understandable to the beginning or non-engineer.

At first glance, "Air Disasters" does not seem to have much in common with Petroski's book, but that is really not the case, as the book contains information on structural failures which have caused some of the crashes, and discusses the engineering behind these failures. This is extremely relevant to anyone who is interested in mechanical, structural, or specifically aviation engineering. Engineering is a learning experience, and this is one thing all the…[continue]

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