The Evolution of Useful Things - Henry Petroski

I've not posted anything for a while, as I slowly crunching my way through Knuth volume 2. However, a couple of nice Christmas presents have provided me distraction, and this is one.

Picked from my Amazon wishlist, this is a book by a well-known serial engineering writer, who has also written "To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design", which fits into my normal pattern of reading books about how things fail in order to attempt to avoid that.

This book is about how the refined designs for everyday items were reached. To give you an idea of what this covers, he talks about cutlery, screws, paperclips, post-it notes, zips, saws, hammers, can-openers, drinks cans and fast-food containers.

His overall thesis is that "Form follows function" and "Necessity is the mother of invention" are both lies. Form tends to evolve incrementally over time, as frustrations with the perceived shortcomings of the existing solution (inconvenience, rather than necessity) drives new inventions. He makes a good argument, although these rather shallow and simple sayings feel something of a straw man.

Petroski is a respected pop engineering writer. This is one of those books where you might say "The history of the paperclip sounds like it should be incredibly dull, but Petroski makes it interesting." Unfortunately, the truth is, he doesn't. It's a mildly dull subject in itself, but he really doesn't help. His research is thorough and his arguing persuasive, but the overall idea is a bit unexciting and the delivery plodding. I don't begrudge reading it, but I certainly think it could be a lot shorter and more engaging.

Posted 2013-01-19.