A history of things that came to be because other things didn't work

January 31, 1993|By Valerie Takahama | Valerie Takahama,Orange County Register


Henry Petroski.


288 pages. $24.

Some people look at the glass and see it half empty, others see it half full. But author-engineer Henry Petroski looks at the glass -- say, an Orrefors crystal water goblet -- and sees its evolution from thick to thin to too-thin to a more practical, merely thin again.

The drinking glass is one of the many seemingly humdrum objects Dr. Petroski probes in his new book, "The Evolution of Useful Things." Others run the gamut from the aluminum can to the zipper, and along the way he not only explains how Scotch tape got its name and the fork got its tines but how the paper clip and Post-it Notes came to be.

Dr. Petroski, an engineering professor from Duke University, made a name for himself in 1990 with "The Pencil," a non-fiction account of, yes, pencils, that critics said read like an engrossing novel. In "The Evolution of Useful Things," he again focuses on things ordinary, but this time he uses them to illustrate his theories about design and engineering.

Chiefly, Dr. Petroski argues against the widely held dictum that "form follows function" and proposes his own theory that "form follows failure."

"Clever people in the past, whom we today might call inventors, designers or engineers, observed the failure of existing things to function as well as might be imagined," he writes. "By focusing on the shortcomings of things, innovators altered those items to remove the imperfections, thus producing new, improved objects."

Need proof? Scotch tape was invented after Richard Drew, a lab technician at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company overheard auto-shop workers cursing about doing two-tone paint jobs with surgical adhesive tape, which often stuck to the paint.

Post-it Notes were developed by Art Fry, a 3M chemical engineer, who grew frustrated when the loose scraps of paper he used as bookmarks kept falling out of place.

Dr. Petroski's "form follows failure" theory has its roots in an earlier book, "To Engineer Is Human," in which he looked for the causes of some of history's greatest engineering disasters.

"In 'To Engineer is Human,' " he says, "the question I really tried to answer for the layman is why things go wrong -- why airplanes crash, why the walkways and bridges fall down in the Hyatt Regency. A lot of things like that were happening in the early to mid-'80s, and a lot of my neighbors who were not engineers would say, 'What's wrong with you guys?' So that was the question I set out to answer.

"In the process I came to see that the idea of failure or fault-finding is really central to engineering. Good engineering anticipates the things that can go wrong and designs into the system or the artifact features that don't allow that to happen."

Along with his engineering theories, Dr. Petroski tosses out plenty of just-plain-interesting tidbits in "The Evolution of Useful Objects."

Buttons on men's and women's garments, for example, are on opposite sides because men in 15th-century Europe dressed themselves but most fashionable women "were commonly dressed by maids, who naturally faced their mistresses while hooking or buttoning them up. Therefore, buttons would have migrated to the side of a lady's garment that corresponded to the facing maid's right."

And as for how Scotch tape got its name, Dr. Petroski writes: "According to company lore, the tape came to be called Scotch because on an early batch of 2-inch-wide tape the adhesive was applied only to the edges, presumably since this was thought to be sufficient and even perhaps desirable for masking applications. . . . However, with so little adhesive, the heavy paper pulled the tape off the auto body, and a frustrated painter is said to have told a salesman, 'Take this tape back to your stingy Scotch bosses and tell them to put more adhesive on it.'" That led to the name Scotch tape, because "consumers can use the tape to make economical repairs on so many household items."

L And he has some ideas for nurturing new talent in the field.

"Inventors really come from a wide, wide variety of backgrounds and they do a wide, wide variety of things as full-time jobs. There seems to be no rule that comes into play in the development of inventors. They can be nurtured by corporations giving them some time to explore ideas that don't necessarily have any immediate payoff or aren't necessarily going to contribute to the bottom line in the next quarter. There are clearly some companies that do that."

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