“Engineering Is Achieving Function While Avoiding Failure”

(p. A21) 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 addressed 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 that an engineer makes is a failure calculation. Successful engineering is all about understanding how things break or fail.”

. . .

“Even though I had three degrees in engineering, and had been teaching engineering and was registered as a professional engineer,” he told The Times in 2014, “if some neighbor asked me, ‘What is engineering?,’ I said, ‘Duh.’ I couldn’t put together a coherent definition of it.” His best effort, he said, was, that “engineering is achieving function while avoiding failure.”

Pencils proved a prosaic object for Dr. Petroski’s failure analysis.

. . .

“By asking why and how a pencil point breaks in the way it does,” he concluded, “we are not only led to a better understanding of the tools of stress analysis and their limitations, but we are also led to a fuller appreciation of the wonders of technology when we analyze the aptness of such a manufactured product as the common pencil.”

Two years later, he expanded on the journal article with “The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance,” a 448-page tour through its invention and evolution — with brands like Faber-Castell, Dixon Ticonderoga and Koh-I-Noor among them — that included a chapter about the pencil-making business of Henry David Thoreau’s family in Concord, Mass.

Thoreau, best known for writing about his experience living simply in the woods in “Walden,” was a self-taught pencil engineer who learned about the graphite and clay mixture that made European pencils superior, and who helped adapt them to his family’s pencil manufacturing.

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Sandomir. “Henry Petroski, Whose Books Decoded Engineering, Is Dead at 81.” The New York Times (Friday, June 23, 2023): A21.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date June 22, 2023, and has the title “Henry Petroski, Whose Books Decoded Engineering, Dies at 81.”)

Petroski’s best-known book is:

Petroski, Henry. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. New York: Knopf, 1989.

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