Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering

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9780375400414: Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering

This collection of informative and pleasurable essays by Henry Petroski elucidates the role of engineers in shaping our environment in countless ways, big and small.

In Remaking the World Petroski gravitates this time, perhaps, toward the big: the English Channel tunnel, the Panama Canal, Hoover Dam, the QE2, and the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia, now the tallest buildings in the world. He profiles Charles Steinmetz, the genius of the General Electric Company; Henry Martyn Robert, a military engineer who created Robert's Rules of Order; and James Nasmyth, the Scotsman whose machine tools helped shape nineteenth-century ocean and rail transportation. Petroski sifts through the fossils of technology for cautionary tales and remarkable twists of fortune, and reminds us that failure is often a necessary step on the path to new discoveries. He explains soil mechanics by way of a game of  "rock, scissors, paper," and clarifies fundamental principles of engineering through the spokes of a Ferris wheel.

Most of all, Henry Petroski continues to celebrate the men and women whose scrawls on the backs of envelopes have immeasurably improved our world.

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Review:

Engineers, Henry Petroski observes, are sometimes their own worst enemies, at least so far as communicating their work to the general public is concerned. Some engineers, of course, have been exceptions. One of the unlikely heroes of Petroski's Remaking the World, an entertaining foray into some of engineering's finest (and, on occasion, less exalted) moments, is Karl August Rudolf Steinmetz, who combined a great talent for design and engineering with a keenly practiced flair for self-promotion. Another is Washington Gale Ferris, the inventor of the Ferris wheel, who concocted several dangerous eyesores before arriving at the design familiar to amusement-park patrons.

Successful at explaining themselves or not, engineers are largely responsible for the world as we know it, and Petroski examines their work to discuss how good design and technology combine to produce the desired results. That combination involves much trial and error, and, as Petroski writes, "artifacts from paper clips to steamships evolve by removing some real or perceived failure of their ancestors to achieve unqualified success." Drawing on examples from past and present, Petroski offers an up-close view of how engineers do their work, and his history is full of surprises and pleasures. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University, where he also serves as chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The author of seven previous books, he has received grants from the National Science Foundation and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Humanities Center.

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