Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design

Henry Petroski, Author . Princeton Univ. $22.95 (235p) ISBN 978-0-691-12225-0

From the clumsy packaging of Aleve pain reliever to the space shuttle Columbia disaster, this engrossing study mourns and celebrates failed designs that spur further improvement. Civil engineer Petroski, author of The Evolution of Useful Things and other meditations on manufactured objects, reminds us that setbacks teach us more than triumphs. The principle is easy to see in gargantuan construction projects; the art of bridge building, he notes, advances over the rubble of collapsed spans. But the essence of engineering, he contends, is to construe every limiting aspect of existence as a remediable malfunction; even the elemental wooden pointer is an underperforming contraption with a bug—finite length—corrected in the next generation of laser pointers. The moral Petroski draws—success breeds hubris and catastrophe, failure nurtures humility and insight—is worth pondering, but his conceit mainly furnishes a peg for his trademark historical sketches of the world of objects, full of evocative observations of, say, those interludes during the glitch-prone dawn of PowerPoint presentations when "everyone just stood around or sat by and watched in silence as the bashful new technology was coaxed out of its black box." He delivers a lesson in the price of progress and another perceptive look at the relationship between man and his stuff. Photos. B&w illus. (Apr.)

Reviewed on: 01/30/2006
Release date: 02/01/2006
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 235 pages - 978-0-691-13642-4
Open Ebook - 256 pages - 978-1-4008-4911-6
Paperback - 279 pages - 978-607-16-0618-1
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