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Success through Failure

Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design

Henry Petroski
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: STU - Student edition
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Success through Failure
    Book Description:

    Design pervades our lives. Everything from drafting a PowerPoint presentation to planning a state-of-the-art bridge embodies this universal human activity. But what makes a great design? In this compelling and wide-ranging look at the essence of invention, distinguished engineer and author Henry Petroski argues that, time and again, we have built success on the back of failure--not through easy imitation of success.

    Success through Failure shows us that making something better--by carefully anticipating and thus averting failure--is what invention and design are all about. Petroski explores the nature of invention and the character of the inventor through an unprecedented range of both everyday and extraordinary examples--illustrated lectures, child-resistant packaging for drugs, national constitutions, medical devices, the world's tallest skyscrapers, long-span bridges, and more. Stressing throughout that there is no surer road to eventual failure than modeling designs solely on past successes, he sheds new light on spectacular failures, from the destruction of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 and the space shuttle disasters of recent decades, to the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001.

    Petroski also looks at the prehistoric and ancient roots of many modern designs. The historical record, especially as embodied in failures, reveals patterns of human social behavior that have implications for large structures like bridges and vast organizations like NASA. Success through Failure--which will fascinate anyone intrigued by design, including engineers, architects, and designers themselves--concludes by speculating on when we can expect the next major bridge failure to occur, and the kind of bridge most likely to be involved.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4911-6
    Subjects: Technology, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. 1-9)

    Desire, not necessity, is the mother of invention. New things and the ideas for things come from our dissatisfaction with what there is and from the want of a satisfactory thing for doing what we want done. More precisely, the development of new artifacts and new technologies follows from the failure of existing ones to perform as promised or as well as can be hoped for or imagined. Frustration and disappointment associated with the use of a tool or the performance of a system puts a challenge on the table: Improve the thing. Sometimes, as when a part breaks in...

    (pp. 10-43)

    Imagine anyplace, anytime. There, on a cloudless night, the shadows cast by a full moon light the landscape as if it were a stage. A quiet and patient observer could watch the limned images of wildlife morph out of the wings and stalk and flee in pantomime, playing out a nightly drama under the stars. As the moon progresses across the sky, the shadows on the ground slowly but inexorably follow their own circuit, shortening and lengthening around the moondial. At dawn, the footlight of the sun signals a new act.

    From the beginning of the solar system, the stage...

    (pp. 44-80)

    Ur-implements were most likely those things found close at hand. Thus, the finger would have been the obvious choice to draw lines in the sand, and then to point out features of the plan. But the finger is blunt, and the hand to which it is attached obscuring. The humble twig or stick certainly became the natural extension of the finger, allowing the designer to stand away from a drawing and thus obscure it less. But even the act of picking up a stick can involve design. A good number of sticks lying about might be rejected as too short...

    (pp. 81-96)

    It is not just the tangible things overtly associated with engineering and technology that are invented and designed—and that succeed and fail. Lectures and books have to be designed, anticipating as much as possible the expectation of the audience. Critics are nothing if not failure analysts. Coming up with a successor to a success is no mean feat. Many a critically acclaimed first novelist has produced a disappointing follow-up book, or one that is but the first just slightly redesigned and repackaged.

    Systems of all kinds are also designed, in a big way. As I have written elsewhere, our...

    (pp. 97-115)

    In the nineteenth century the distinction between small and large things was more or less easily drawn. Small things were generally those that fit in the hand and that could be easily grasped, both physically and intellectually. They were typically simple things that—given the necessary materials, skill, time, and the simplest of tools—could have been crafted one by one by a single individual. Increasingly over the preceding century, they had also come to be made in quantity by division of labor. They were things like pins, needles, buttons, quills. They were small things easily forgotten in the history...

    (pp. 116-138)

    What Goethe looked for in a building we should look for in any structure and, indeed, in any design. Even a needle must be pointed at the right place, must be held firmly in the fingers, and must be manipulated properly to achieve the desired sartorial end. Whether showing lantern slides or a PowerPoint presentation, the projector should be located in an appropriate place, it should sit firmly on a solid surface, and it should be properly operated. Certainly a speaker should prefer that the projector not be placed in a position where latecomers will walk in front of it,...

    (pp. 139-162)

    Bridges, the greatest of which are among the largest and most ambitious deliberately designed structures in the world, have evolved more surely not in imitation of success but in response to failure. Colossal failures especially have been responsible for the most revolutionary changes in modern bridge design, but even the most primitive bridges developed out of responses to small and not so small annoyances, if not downright failures.

    Fording a shallow stream has certainly always been a way to cross it, but the process necessitated getting one’s feet, at least, wet in the process. Even less shallow streams could be...

    (pp. 163-194)

    Design is Janus-faced, looking always both backwards and forwards. In the past, design sees at the same time an inspiring and yet an imperfect world, full of things to be both admired and improved upon. Of course, the past is also the repository of downright failures, monuments to ignorance, excessive optimism, and hubris. If heeded, the past thus provides caveats and lessons for future designs. If shunned, it will still haunt the future, always lurking in the shadows of success. In prospect, design too readily sees a world of perfection, one that is user-friendly and error-free. Under no circumstances should...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 195-218)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 219-236)