Success and Failure in Engineering

Henry Petroski

Engineering is about making and doing things that have not been done before. To be successful, it is essential that engineers properly anticipate how things can fail, and design accordingly. Case studies of past failures thus provide invaluable information for the design of future successes. Conversely, designs based on the extrapolation of successful experience alone can lead to failure.

This paradox will be explored in the context of historical case studies, including the design of ocean liners and also of suspension bridges, which from the 1850s through the 1930s evolved from John Roebling’s enormous successes—culminating in the Brooklyn Bridge—to structures that oscillated in the wind and, in the case of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, twisted itself apart and collapsed in 1940. Lessons learned from these cases and others can be generalized to apply across a broad spectrum of engineering structures and systems. They also help explain why failures continue to occur, even as technology advances.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His current research activity focuses on the interrelationship between success and failure in design. He also has a strong interest in the nature of invention and in the history of technology. He has written on many aspects of engineering and technology, including design, success and failure, error and judgment, the history of engineering and technology, and the use of case studies in education and practice.

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