Henry Petroski, who demystified engineering with literary investigations into the construction and failure of great structures like buildings and bridges, as well as everyday objects like pencils and toothpicks, died June 14 at the Durham, North Carolina Hospice. He was 81 years old.
His wife Catherine Petroski said the cause was cancer.
dr Petroski, a longtime professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University, adapted the architectural axiom “form follows function” into one of his own – “form follows failure” – and has covered the subject extensively in books, lectures, scholarly journals, The New York Times and magazines like Forbes and American Scientist.
“Failure is central to engineering,” he said when The Times profiled him in 2006. “Every single calculation an engineer performs is an error calculation.” Successful engineering is all about understanding how things break or fail.”
In To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (1985), Dr. Petroski on what happens when design goes horribly wrong—like the 1981 collapse of the two skywalks at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel, which killed 114 people, and the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington state in 1940, just a few months after it opened.
Shortly after the disaster at the Hyatt Regency, Dr. Petroski, one of his neighbors asked me “how something like this could happen”.
“He wondered,” he continued, “didn’t engineers even know how to build a structure as simple as an elevated skywalk?” But he doesn’t think his explanations for the hotel collapse and other failures pleased his neighbor, he added .
He wrote the book to define what an engineer is.
“Even though I had three engineering degrees, taught engineering, and was registered as a professional engineer,” he told the Times in 2014, “when a neighbor asked me, ‘What is engineering?’, I would say ‘Duh.’ I couldn’t piece together a coherent definition of it.” His best effort, he said, is that “engineering is about achieving functionality while avoiding failure.”
Pencils turned out to be a prosaic object for Dr. Petroski’s error analysis.
Spurred in part by the inferior quality of the pencils he received at Duke, he used engineering equations to describe why pencil tips break in a 1987 article in the Journal of Applied Mechanics.
“By asking why and how a pencil point breaks in this way,” he concluded, “we are led not only to a better understanding of the tools of stress analysis and their limitations, but also to a fuller understanding of the wonders of technology.” , when we analyze the suitability of a product made in this way, like the ordinary pencil.”
Two years later, he expanded the magazine article with “The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance,” a 448-page tour of its invention and development – including brands like Faber-Castell, Dixon Ticonderoga and Koh-I-Noor them – including a Chapter on Henry David Thoreau’s family pencil manufacturing business in Concord, Massachusetts.
Thoreau, best known for writing about his experiences in “Walden” simply living in the woods, was a self-taught pencil engineer who learned about the graphite-clay mixture that made European pencils superior, and who helped adapt them to his family’s pencil making.
Almost 20 years after the release of The Pencil, Dr. Petroski attests to an even more humble everyday object with The Toothpick: Technology and Culture (2007), which traces its evolution from a form used by early hominids to the creation of the modern toothpick industry in the 19th century.
Reviewing the book for The Times, humorist Joe Queenan scoffed at the need for a 400-plus-page toothpick volume.
“It’s less of a book and more of a threat,” he wrote. “If you enjoyed ‘The Toothpick,’ wait till you get a batch of ‘The Grommet.'”
He added: “This thing has gone far enough, Mr. Petroski. Stop it.”
dr Petroski was born in Brooklyn on February 6, 1942 and grew up there and in Queens. His mother, Victoria (Grygrowych) Petroski, was a housewife. His father, also called Henry, was a pay scale employee at trucking companies.
“I remember him reading the labels on cans and boxes and explaining how their contents ended up on our table,” said Dr. Petroski in 2004 to The Herald-Sun of Durham, NC. “I admired how he could tell a story.” So little information and I suppose that influenced me somewhat.
“As a kid,” he continued, “I didn’t read labels as much as I played with the cans and crates as building blocks.” I was interested in building tall towers out of tin cans and building bridges out of crates.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Manhattan College in the Bronx in 1963, a master’s degree in theoretical and applied mechanics from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1964, and a Ph.D. there in 1968.
He met his future wife, Catherine Groom, while she was studying English at the University of Illinois. An occasional poet, he courted her with sonnets and they married in 1966. In addition to his wife, he is survived by one daughter, Karen Petroski; her son Stephen, a mechanical engineer and patent attorney; his brother William; his sister Marianne Petroski; and two grandchildren.
dr Petroski taught engineering at the University of Texas at Austin for six years before joining Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois in 1974, where he was a group leader in the reactor analysis and safety department. In 1980 he transferred to Duke, and his curriculum gave him the freedom to write much about engineering without being technical. In 2020 he retired.
“He worked at the intersection of engineering and history,” Earl Dowell, a former dean of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, said in a phone interview. “His readership included a wide range of engineers, who enjoyed his books because they presented the big picture of engineering without going into too much detail, and non-engineers.”
His other books include The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts – From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers – Came to Be as They Are (1992); “Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design” (2003); and To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure (2012), which picks up where To Engineer Is Human left off, with analyzes of the loss of NASA’s two space shuttles, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and other epic engineering failures.
dr Petroski has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Humanities Center. He conducted engineering and design research funded by organizations such as the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the National Science Foundation.
In one of his last books, Dr. Petroski’s curiosity and engineer’s view of the mid-century cedar cabin in Maine where he and his wife spent their summers. He analyzed its structure and its oddities, and got to the bottom of the mystery of Robert Phinney, the engineer and amateur carpenter who built it.
“Phinney was not a classical architect nor, as far as I know, even an architecture student,” wrote Dr. Petroski in “The House with Sixteen Handcrafted Doors: A Story of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship” (2014).
“From his design and construction I gather that he was popularly known as a folk architect and builder, but the house he designed and built was anything but ordinary. It was, in the words of Le Corbusier, A machine to live in – a machine for living in – and it was a tailor-made machine. It was a structure worthy of an engineer who had worked on precision calculators.”