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   How did the table fork acquire a fourth tine?  What advantage does the Phillips-head screw have over its single-grooved predecessor? Why does the paper clip look the way it does? What makes Scotch tape Scotch?    In this delightful book Henry Petroski takes a microscopic look at artifacts that most of us count on but rarely contemplate, including such icons of the everyd    How did the table fork acquire a fourth tine?  What advantage does the Phillips-head screw have over its single-grooved predecessor? Why does the paper clip look the way it does? What makes Scotch tape Scotch?    In this delightful book Henry Petroski takes a microscopic look at artifacts that most of us count on but rarely contemplate, including such icons of the everyday as pins, Post-its, and fast-food "clamshell" containers.  At the same time, he offers a convincing new theory of technological innovation as a response to the perceived failures of existing products—suggesting that irritation, and not necessity, is the mother of invention.


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   How did the table fork acquire a fourth tine?  What advantage does the Phillips-head screw have over its single-grooved predecessor? Why does the paper clip look the way it does? What makes Scotch tape Scotch?    In this delightful book Henry Petroski takes a microscopic look at artifacts that most of us count on but rarely contemplate, including such icons of the everyd    How did the table fork acquire a fourth tine?  What advantage does the Phillips-head screw have over its single-grooved predecessor? Why does the paper clip look the way it does? What makes Scotch tape Scotch?    In this delightful book Henry Petroski takes a microscopic look at artifacts that most of us count on but rarely contemplate, including such icons of the everyday as pins, Post-its, and fast-food "clamshell" containers.  At the same time, he offers a convincing new theory of technological innovation as a response to the perceived failures of existing products—suggesting that irritation, and not necessity, is the mother of invention.

30 review for The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are.

  1. 5 out of 5

    Alex Ankarr

    If you have a paperclip obsession then boy howdy do I have the book for you!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jen

    My last book of 2012. This book is less a "hey this is how things came to be" and more "hey this why form follows function is a bunch of malarkey and form follows a lot of things--often failure." This book was not what I thought it was. But that's not always a bad thing. In fact, I think I got a lot of bang for my buck by it not being what I thought it would be. It made me think more and analyze more. Less trivia, more thought. How things get designed and how they come to be is sometimes lost in th My last book of 2012. This book is less a "hey this is how things came to be" and more "hey this why form follows function is a bunch of malarkey and form follows a lot of things--often failure." This book was not what I thought it was. But that's not always a bad thing. In fact, I think I got a lot of bang for my buck by it not being what I thought it would be. It made me think more and analyze more. Less trivia, more thought. How things get designed and how they come to be is sometimes lost in the commonality of the items. This book looks at how forks and knives and paperclip didn't just happen, they were thought out designs to solve the failures of other things. I didn't know that before the paperclip, pins were often used to put papers together. Seems such a dumb idea now...why not use a paperclip? And how forks evolved and then people went nuts getting one off items of silver, like "tomato servers." Seriously. In silver. That's just plain silly. The best moment of this book is over the holidays, I told my nieces and daughter that I would read them a boring book to get them to sleep. Niece 1: What is it about? Me: Paper clips (and I start reading) Niece 1 (to her mom): I thought she was kidding about the paper-clip thing.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Beth Barnett

    The subject matter is definitely interesting, but the author's writing style is dry and not suitably engaging. I had to force myself to continue at times to get through boring sections. The subject matter is definitely interesting, but the author's writing style is dry and not suitably engaging. I had to force myself to continue at times to get through boring sections.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Alex Ankarr

    Loooooove this one. Only a little bit nuts.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Alan

    The title and the physical design of this book echo—and intentionally, I'm sure—those chosen for paperback editions of Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things (née The Psychology of Everyday Things), at least in the edition I read. Norman's landmark work receives its due in the Index and Bibliography of Petroski's, and these two works do scratch very similar itches, but I'm convinced that the physical similarity of design is here neither Norman's nor Petroski's, but rather that of some mar The title and the physical design of this book echo—and intentionally, I'm sure—those chosen for paperback editions of Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things (née The Psychology of Everyday Things), at least in the edition I read. Norman's landmark work receives its due in the Index and Bibliography of Petroski's, and these two works do scratch very similar itches, but I'm convinced that the physical similarity of design is here neither Norman's nor Petroski's, but rather that of some marketing department bright boy (or girl)—just another way in which design is influenced by factors separate from the originators' own wishes. The topics Petroski chooses are interesting and his anecdotes plentiful and detailed. I found charming, for one example, designer Raymond Loewy's formulation of the limit on how much innovation consumers will accept, which he called "MAYA"—the "most advanced yet acceptable" change from existing designs. However, and this might be a personal reaction, I just don't find Petroski's prose very engaging. His thesis is not especially controversial, and it's simply enough stated: necessity is not so much the mother of invention; what drives invention is the desire to correct some perceived flaw or lack in what's currently available. Stretching this into a book—and I've been too verbose here myself—takes some doing. It's also insufficiently illustrated. For a book on design to have so few images of design good and bad is a serious flaw. And the images that do exist are small and monochrome. Certainly larger, full-color examples would have added to the expense of the book, but they would also have significantly added to its impact. This is by no means the worst book ever written on design; it has an important point to make, is well-researched, and is bolstered with specifics. If you are interested in the designs and origins of simple things, then you will find rewarding incidents and history here. You'll just have to dig for them a little harder than you should have to.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    On occasion, the reader can be caught up in an interesting process of new form through failure or necessity (for example, I had never thought to attribute the relatively short existence of McDonald's McDLT to the environmental shift away from polystyrene packaging at the time) but through most of the book the writing is too dry to truly grab. Some of the information could be fascinating, but unfortunately much of it read like assigned homework from a sell-back-immediately-at-the-end-of-semester On occasion, the reader can be caught up in an interesting process of new form through failure or necessity (for example, I had never thought to attribute the relatively short existence of McDonald's McDLT to the environmental shift away from polystyrene packaging at the time) but through most of the book the writing is too dry to truly grab. Some of the information could be fascinating, but unfortunately much of it read like assigned homework from a sell-back-immediately-at-the-end-of-semester textbook. The questions "How did the table fork acquire a fourth tine? What advantage does the Phillips-head screw have over its single-grooved predecessor? Why does the paper clip look the way it does? What makes Scotch tape Scotch?" are intriguing and lead the reader to expect a book lighter and more fun tone. Though perhaps that expectation is more the fault of the publisher than the author ("fault" being relative -- the publisher did, after all, succeed in selling his book to me), but when reading for curiosity rather than research, I had hoped the answers to the above questions would be made both interesting and "sticky." Sadly, after trudging through the entire volume, my memory fails. How DID the table fork acquire a fourth tine? Why DOES the paper clip look the way it does? I won't read it again in the hope of remembering those answers this time.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Heyrebekah Alm

    This book is far more interesting than one might expect from reading the back cover. The author argues that form does not follow function and necessity is not the mother of invention. Instead, the major inspiration for invention is correcting the failure of previous inventions. Makes sense to me, although I always thought "form follows function" was more a rule for good design--as in form SHOULD follow function--rather than a truth about design. All of that theory gets a little boring and repeti This book is far more interesting than one might expect from reading the back cover. The author argues that form does not follow function and necessity is not the mother of invention. Instead, the major inspiration for invention is correcting the failure of previous inventions. Makes sense to me, although I always thought "form follows function" was more a rule for good design--as in form SHOULD follow function--rather than a truth about design. All of that theory gets a little boring and repetitive, but I found all of the various examples (paperclips, post-its, can openers) fascinating. The other day I read the chapter on can openers on the way home from work (they were created a surprisingly long time after the cans themselves). When I got home I started making dinner had to open a can and wouldn't you just know, my can opener broke! I had to bust into that can using a fork, much the way people must have done with the first cans. If someone out there can improve upon the design of the can opener so that the little screw holding the blade can't fall off, I would be much obliged.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Carmen something

    His later text is much better edited. I'm not saying that Engineers can't write or edit, I'm just saying that the 65 pages spent on knives, spoons, and forks was--oh, dare I?--bland. His later text is much better edited. I'm not saying that Engineers can't write or edit, I'm just saying that the 65 pages spent on knives, spoons, and forks was--oh, dare I?--bland.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    This book can't help but change the way its readers looks at the myriad of minute things that surround them. The author has an uncommon ability to notice all of the little ways in which our objects are designed to satisfy human wants and convenience, and, even more importantly, how often they fail to. Henry Petroski's main argument is that every object's "form follows failure," namely, that every invention is related to some perceived shortcoming of its predecessor. Like a good engineer or innov This book can't help but change the way its readers looks at the myriad of minute things that surround them. The author has an uncommon ability to notice all of the little ways in which our objects are designed to satisfy human wants and convenience, and, even more importantly, how often they fail to. Henry Petroski's main argument is that every object's "form follows failure," namely, that every invention is related to some perceived shortcoming of its predecessor. Like a good engineer or innovator, he can't help but note that every object, no matter how perfect, fails at its tasks. Take the story of the paperclip, which really begins with the story of the pin. Adam Smith himself had noted how efficient a division of labor in a pin-making factory could be, but it wasn't until John Ireland Howe teamed up with the newspaper printer Robert Hoe in 1832 that a real machine for making pins was created. Yet these could not be mass-produced because they had to be stuck individually by hand to little pieces of paper. Howe soon created a machine for crimping paper and attaching it to pins, and someone else created long rolls of attached paper for "bank pins" to pin paper and bank notes together. Yet it was a Norwegian named Johann Vaaler at the end of the 19th century who created a steel wire folded back upon itself whose tensile force stuck to paper, the first modern paper clip, which did not require poking through paper and maybe oneself like a pin. It was William Middlebrook of Connecticut who came up with a machine for folding these paper clips, and keeping the entire wire in the same plane. Middlebrook thus created the "gem paperclip" that is the standard today, which attracts many peahens for its simple utility. Yet as Petroski shows, even the gem has its faults: it can't hold many pieces of paper, it tends to slip off, it tends to hook together. So of course while many people think of the modern paperclip as a near Platonic form, inventors and merchants have manufactured hundreds of different types of paper clips, some with ridges for a tighter grip, paper clips of copper or gold that won't rust on paper, paper clips in owl-eyed shape for small batches and a tighter grip and so on. Where many people see perfection, Petroski, and most engineers, see something that can be improved upon, at least for some people at some times. Petroski goes through this story in many iterations, for tableware of all sorts (the fork was a relatively late addition, it did not reach England until the 16th century and did not usually get four tines until the nineteenth century), zippers (it took decades before Gideon Sundback and B.F. Goodrich figured out the modern zipper with the Y-shaped slider and spoon-shaped teeth in the 1920s and attached it to rain boots), and adhesion (both scotch tape in the 1930s and post-its in the 1970s came from manufacturer 3M's tendency to allow its engineers to "bootleg" in their spare time). Some of the book's descriptions of particular types of oyster, fish, salad, and dessert forks and spoons can get a little dense, but after reading the book I did begin looking at all of my little items with a fresh eye. It's a wonderful benefit from a little book.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Becky

    This was more a collection of individual examples of design accreted under the concept that designers try to correct previous failings. I enjoyed some of the storylines, such as the fork and the post-it note, much more than the others. In other chapters I had a hard time remaining engaged.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Trena

    I assumed that my now love for non-fiction was a matter of age. That reaching my 30s (and now 40s) gave me a gravitas that lead me to weightier subjects. In reality, I'm pretty sure it's a function of the current writing style for non-fiction. Reading this now nearly 20 year old book reminded me how plodding, boring non-fiction got its reputation. Petroski's content is decent, and some of the stories are quite fascinating, particularly the cover story on the paper clip and the evolution of silver I assumed that my now love for non-fiction was a matter of age. That reaching my 30s (and now 40s) gave me a gravitas that lead me to weightier subjects. In reality, I'm pretty sure it's a function of the current writing style for non-fiction. Reading this now nearly 20 year old book reminded me how plodding, boring non-fiction got its reputation. Petroski's content is decent, and some of the stories are quite fascinating, particularly the cover story on the paper clip and the evolution of silverware. But the writing is dense and dull and disjointed and there is a lot of idiosyncratic editorializing, such as a 7 page rant on the garbage bag. I don't think this book would be published today, and there are several more contemporary books on the topic of industrial design on my reading list that I suspect will be more enjoyable. It did make me want to read a biography of Raymond Loewy, so that's something.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Katerina Provost

    Slow in some places but overall an extremely intriguing book! Loved it.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kamal

    This is the second of Petroski's books that I have read now. I have got to say, I'm not impressed. He is a weak writer and an even weaker historian, but I suppose that is to be expected since he is an engineer, and a very noteworthy one at that. I suppose that I am particularly disappointed because the subject matter of Petroski's books are so very appealing. I love the idea of creating a history of the forgotten or ignored things of everyday life. Bravo to him for actually attempting to do this This is the second of Petroski's books that I have read now. I have got to say, I'm not impressed. He is a weak writer and an even weaker historian, but I suppose that is to be expected since he is an engineer, and a very noteworthy one at that. I suppose that I am particularly disappointed because the subject matter of Petroski's books are so very appealing. I love the idea of creating a history of the forgotten or ignored things of everyday life. Bravo to him for actually attempting to do this. However, the execution is lacking. That being said, Petroski can't be accused of being a lazy researcher; he has plumbed the depths of every patent office on the planet it seems. This work is full of interesting tidbits of trivia. But for all his thoroughness in researching, he gets so caught up in the technicalities of the inventions that he cannot theorize about them at a higher level. In this way, the book is very a-theoretical. His (so-called) thesis about 'form following function [perhaps]' is flimsy and trite. He also struggles to put objects into their social context. Moreover, he has an annoying habit of repeating the same facts over and over again. So he comes across as a doting old man, surprised and confused by the modern world. (His account in the book of his frustration with the new phone system in his office confirms this, in my mind). This book in particular suffers from his senectitude, which makes it a very tedious read after the first few chapters. Interestingly, this is the same way that I felt while reading his history of bookshelves, so I don't think I'll be reading any more of his books if I can avoid it because the last thing I want to read is a protracted account of a 'senior moment'. In short: good researcher, bad storyteller.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Aimee

    Petroski refutes the idea that form follows function, instead showing how form actually follows the failures (real or perceived) of previous technology. Although he is sometimes repetitive in making his point, his case studies of paperclips, forks, zippers, etc. are fascinating. Petroski writes with dry humor and a sly turn of phrase that made me smile frequently while reading this otherwise fairly scholarly work. I also learned that Dayton is famous for something other than the Wright brothers a Petroski refutes the idea that form follows function, instead showing how form actually follows the failures (real or perceived) of previous technology. Although he is sometimes repetitive in making his point, his case studies of paperclips, forks, zippers, etc. are fascinating. Petroski writes with dry humor and a sly turn of phrase that made me smile frequently while reading this otherwise fairly scholarly work. I also learned that Dayton is famous for something other than the Wright brothers and having the largest Air Force Base. Ermal Fraze, a Daytonian, invented the pull-tab that allowed canned beverages to be conveniently opened with no tool other than the consumer's finger. Thank you, Mr. Fraze! Many other improvements to the original pull-tab were also made right here in the Dayton area. Yea, us!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    What I wanted was a close examination and demonstration of arcane objects that were once a part of everyday life. Instead, I got this man's theory as why humans alter an object in the first place. Which is possibly the most banal reason I can think of: because it wasn't good enough. I think you'd have to be a complete cloud dweller to actually take the whole "form follows function" doctrine seriously. All them dang modernist buildings got roofs that leak. So, I enjoyed learning about forks and zip What I wanted was a close examination and demonstration of arcane objects that were once a part of everyday life. Instead, I got this man's theory as why humans alter an object in the first place. Which is possibly the most banal reason I can think of: because it wasn't good enough. I think you'd have to be a complete cloud dweller to actually take the whole "form follows function" doctrine seriously. All them dang modernist buildings got roofs that leak. So, I enjoyed learning about forks and zippers, but there was a lot of stuff in between that made me snooze.

  16. 5 out of 5

    S.

    solid Harper-Collins / Vintage ebook from 1994; comparable to big six industry 'rewrite books' wherein doctorate or academic explains topic (in this case, engineering of household items) to layman's audience. paperclip, zipper, forks, wheelbarrow, you get the picture. perhaps not such as a smash hit as 'how things work' (text rather than diagrams, mostly), but certainly competent, workmanslike prose 4/5 solid Harper-Collins / Vintage ebook from 1994; comparable to big six industry 'rewrite books' wherein doctorate or academic explains topic (in this case, engineering of household items) to layman's audience. paperclip, zipper, forks, wheelbarrow, you get the picture. perhaps not such as a smash hit as 'how things work' (text rather than diagrams, mostly), but certainly competent, workmanslike prose 4/5

  17. 5 out of 5

    John

    Disappointly dull - occasional oases of interest in the desert-like trek to the end. Also, rather dated, I hadn't realized the book is nearly 20 years old until, near the end, the author laments the end of his work phone setup, with its "row of lighted buttons" for outside lines, and mentions his rotary dial phone at home! Not particularly recommended. Disappointly dull - occasional oases of interest in the desert-like trek to the end. Also, rather dated, I hadn't realized the book is nearly 20 years old until, near the end, the author laments the end of his work phone setup, with its "row of lighted buttons" for outside lines, and mentions his rotary dial phone at home! Not particularly recommended.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Behrooz Parhami

    This gem of a book contains 250 pages of text, followed by 11 pages of notes, 9 pages of references, a 2-page list of illustrations and associated credits, and a 12-page index. It contains many diagrams, mostly from patent filings, exemplified by the following six figures I have linked in this review. https://www.facebook.com/bparhami/pos... 1. Cover image 2. Johan Vaaler’s first American patent [p. 61] 3. Webster’s definition of clip [p. 67] 4. Henry Lankenau’s paper clips [p. 72] 5. Types of nails a This gem of a book contains 250 pages of text, followed by 11 pages of notes, 9 pages of references, a 2-page list of illustrations and associated credits, and a 12-page index. It contains many diagrams, mostly from patent filings, exemplified by the following six figures I have linked in this review. https://www.facebook.com/bparhami/pos... 1. Cover image 2. Johan Vaaler’s first American patent [p. 61] 3. Webster’s definition of clip [p. 67] 4. Henry Lankenau’s paper clips [p. 72] 5. Types of nails and spikes [p. 128] 6. Collection of forks [p. 135] We are all curious to learn how invention and innovation processes work. It is extremely difficult to discuss these processes for complicated technologies, such as computers and spacecraft. So, Petroski focuses on simple things that everyone can understand. For example, tracing the evolution of utensils, such as the lowly fork, can teach us a great deal about the evolution of technology. The shape of a fork, the number of its tines, and other physical features all came about gradually and in response to perceived problems with earlier variants. Far from designs converging to an optimal configuration, variations tend to persist. In fact, the most useful and widespread a gadget or tool, the greater the number of design variations: There were some 500 different kinds of hammer in 1867. The many variants of each implement come about for various reasons. Broad usage can create many variations, as in the case of hammers. Petroski tells us that saws and axes developed many different varieties, because of the effort needed to operate them [p. 125]. We talk about evolving designs, but unlike nature’s evolutionary processes, design evolution occurs mostly through purposeful change, rather than random mutation [p. 24]. Inventors are essentially critics, who find faults with existing gadgets/processes and are also equipped to do something about it [p. 34]. One can call the process above “innovation by failure.” In fact, Petroski has written widely on the importance of learning from failures. In his book To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Petroski focuses on what engineers learn from failures. The story goes something like this: We build a new kind of structure (say, an ocean liner), factoring in a great deal of redundancy because of our uncertainty and lack of confidence in our knowledge of how it will fare during use. We then build additional versions of the structure, gaining greater confidence with each, shaving a bit off the overdesign or safety factor as a result. Until, eventually, the nth structure becomes too streamlined, and it fails (think of the Titanic). We then go back and see where we erred and how we might eliminate the causes of failure. These failures are part of the learning process for the engineering profession, so they should be taught as case studies in regular engineering courses. As Petroski puts it in another one of his books, Success Through Failure, “When a complex system succeeds, that success masks its proximity to failure. . . . Thus, the failure of the Titanic contributed much more to the design of safe ocean liners than would have her success. That is the paradox of engineering and design.” Another interesting history reviewed by Petroski in this book is that of the paper-clip, which gradually came about from pins used to fasten stacks of paper. The disadvantages of pricking users’ fingers and leaving unsighly holes in the paper were the driving forces for innovation [p. 58]. Following the lengthy history is quite fascinating. The 1901 American patent by Johan Vaaler shows variations in paper clips, including in Fig. 12, which is quite similar to today’s steel variant [p. 61]. More paper-clip designs appear in the 1934 patent filed by Henry Lankenau [p. 72]. Over time, the meaning of the word “clip” changed as new variants were introduced. Accordingly, Webster Dictionary’s definition of clip was updated over time [p. 67]. Of course, not all inventions and innovations come about as a result of purposeful meddling to correct perceived flaws. In a third interesting history, that of sticky notes, Petroski shows us how a failed adhesive that wasn’t sticky enough turned into a feature in sticky notes [p. 85]. The ubiquitous zipper gives us a fourth fascinating example. Again, Petroski presents a complete review of the history of fasteners for clothing (buttons, hooks, and so on), outlining the perceived problems of each kind. “Zipper” was originally a trade-mark of B. F. Goodrich Company’s “Zipper Boots,” which were advertised as being easy to put on and take off, but it later came to be used as a common name for “slide fastener” [p. 112]. Sometimes, initially successful innovations turn into later failures. For example, the polystyrene-foam clamshell berger package of McDonald’s was at first hailed as brilliant, but then it became an environmental nightmare [p. 222]. The evolution of the modern soda can, and the opener tab on top of it [pp. 194-208], also led to environmental concerns, which were eventually mitigated by the emergence of aluminum cans. I think every engineer should read this book. I will keep my copy and read it from time to time to draw inspiration.

  19. 5 out of 5

    William

    Fascinating snippets of the evolution of useful things (see especially the development of the Big Mac wrapper as well as the soft drink can). For the most part, however, the narrative can sometimes drag a bit too slowly.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jim Razinha

    Interesting, but limited in scope. Good observations that very little is revolutionary...most is evolutionary.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kaethe Douglas

    As much as I like the biography of a thing idea, I'm afraid I didn't love this. I think Petroski just isn't my cuppa. As much as I like the biography of a thing idea, I'm afraid I didn't love this. I think Petroski just isn't my cuppa.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Val

    Did not finish. Not a good fit for me.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Josie

    Need to come back to this and finish it later.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Cliff Dolph

    I think this book took me the longest of any I've read this year. That has a lot to do with the fact that I was gearing up for the school play while reading it, and the school year was gathering momentum (along with such other autumn business as canning and the corn maze). But it's also because the book often drags. It is interesting material, but it could be more interesting in the hands of a better writer. Written in 1992, Henry Petroski's book holds up pretty well over time. Although he doesn' I think this book took me the longest of any I've read this year. That has a lot to do with the fact that I was gearing up for the school play while reading it, and the school year was gathering momentum (along with such other autumn business as canning and the corn maze). But it's also because the book often drags. It is interesting material, but it could be more interesting in the hands of a better writer. Written in 1992, Henry Petroski's book holds up pretty well over time. Although he doesn't deal with the Internet and the technological marvels that accompany it, his book doesn't feel especially dated to me, probably because the things of which he traces the development are still with us: silverware, paper clips, hand tools, can openers.... Early in the book, I realized that I'm not the kind of person likely to become an inventor/designer/engineer. I don't tend to notice the deficiencies of the implements I use, or if I do, I grumble and live with it; it certainly doesn't occur to me to find ways to improve on these objects. For the most part, I (and I think most of us) take them for granted, and it's easy to assume that things are the way they are because they had to be that way. Petroski thoroughly deconstructs that myth. Form does *not* follow function, he repeats (hitting us over the head with this thesis much like one of the hundreds of types of hammers he brings up). Form follows failure, and also to some extent the pressures of tradition, style, economics, class distinctions, and chance. His analysis of those factors is cogent and convincing, and to his credit, I often succumbed to the urge to read tidbits aloud to my wife. But what makes the book drag is that some artifacts receive more attention than I was prepared to give them. Petroski devotes many pages, for example, to descriptions of (and paragraph-long quotations from) the patent applications on various forms of paper clip (before this object settled on the form we all know and...use). Sometimes, there are too many long quotations, or too much technical detail. The book also drags because, as I suggested earlier, he reinforces his thesis a little too much. The book has a pedantic feel at times. A few years back, I ready Bill Bryson's "At Home," a room-by-room history of the development of living quarters. It is similar to Petroski's book in purpose--an examination of the question, Why are things the way they are? But Bryson's book is much more readable and engaging, proof that the appeal of a book has at least as much to do with its style as with its matter. So I can't exactly recommend "The Evolution of Useful Things," but I also can't deny that its author is clearly intelligent, perceptive, and capable of both close-up examination and big-picture rumination. His book has much to offer. Just maybe not quite enough...

  25. 5 out of 5

    Raluca

    The friend who lent me this book credits it with forming his way of thinking like an engineer. It's didn't work *quite* like that for me. Petroski's simple, well-built and oft-repeated thesis is that, in designing / inventing / engineering objects, form rarely follows function. Neither the relatively simple paper clip, nor the massively complex railroad engine are "meant" to look or function the way they do. Instead, everything evolves through trial and error, through subsequent improvements (wh The friend who lent me this book credits it with forming his way of thinking like an engineer. It's didn't work *quite* like that for me. Petroski's simple, well-built and oft-repeated thesis is that, in designing / inventing / engineering objects, form rarely follows function. Neither the relatively simple paper clip, nor the massively complex railroad engine are "meant" to look or function the way they do. Instead, everything evolves through trial and error, through subsequent improvements (which might well be only in the eye of the improver), through a mechanism Petroski calls "form follows failure". He backs his view up with well-chosen examples, classical enough that they are unlikely to become obsolete as younger readers hit the shelves). The argumentation was airtight and the examples were interesting, but the repetition and the professorial tone got the best of me in the end. Still, a cool read and, I imagine, a worthy companion to Norman's DOET.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Katherine

    I decided not to finish slogging my way through this one after about two thirds. What started out specific and fairly interesting became blandly general and repetitive. What I hoped would be a specific treatment of actual "useful things" was mostly about design in general, and the evolution of designs. I would have given it three stars if the only issue had been the subject matter, but the writing becomes bogged down with repetition. Page after page of discussion of different pieces of silverwar I decided not to finish slogging my way through this one after about two thirds. What started out specific and fairly interesting became blandly general and repetitive. What I hoped would be a specific treatment of actual "useful things" was mostly about design in general, and the evolution of designs. I would have given it three stars if the only issue had been the subject matter, but the writing becomes bogged down with repetition. Page after page of discussion of different pieces of silverware, long after the discussion of the evolution of the knife and fork, eventually just gets boring. The interesting bits were the actual discussions of how the knife and fork, paperclips, and zipper closures evolved. If the whole book had been like that, I would have really enjoyed it. If you're interested in design and industrial design in general, you might like this book. If you're looking for a specific treatment of the invention and evolution of everyday objects, you'll probably want to give this one a pass.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kyle

    Disappointing. A Petroski should be exhaustively, extensively researched, in more detail than anyone would ever want (I'm looking at you, The Pencil). This book is a series of kinda interesting tidbits about various items in our lives, but none of them as well researched. That might be fine, if each of those tidbit was combined with some grand, continuous threads throughout the entire book - perhaps, about the evolution of useful things. But here Petroski's writing style hurt. I sometimes felt l Disappointing. A Petroski should be exhaustively, extensively researched, in more detail than anyone would ever want (I'm looking at you, The Pencil). This book is a series of kinda interesting tidbits about various items in our lives, but none of them as well researched. That might be fine, if each of those tidbit was combined with some grand, continuous threads throughout the entire book - perhaps, about the evolution of useful things. But here Petroski's writing style hurt. I sometimes felt like there were entire paragraphs that could have been replaced with single sentences, without losing anything at all. Without a clear, overall thesis, and without the inane detail I was hoping for, this book felt like a miss.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Warren Benton

    "Everything around me is artificial, repurposed things from nature." "Nearly always when a new feature appears it has earned its place by defeating an older one." This book is not the most riveting read.  It does, however, give insights into designs of things we now take for granted.  Discussing silverware, paper clips, and many other daily used items Petroski talks of their evolution.  For some of the items, he may have original patent illustrations or old photos.  I think this book would be inte "Everything around me is artificial, repurposed things from nature." "Nearly always when a new feature appears it has earned its place by defeating an older one." This book is not the most riveting read.  It does, however, give insights into designs of things we now take for granted.  Discussing silverware, paper clips, and many other daily used items Petroski talks of their evolution.  For some of the items, he may have original patent illustrations or old photos.  I think this book would be interesting for anyone who enjoys design, engineering, or just the history of forgettable things.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Fraser Sherman

    Just like the title says, Petrowski looks at how and why we developed the fork, the paper clip (at one time people would just drive pins through papers to keep them together), the pop-top canand other everyday items, and why they developed the form they have. His running them is that "form follows function" is nonsense: new forms evolve primarily by trying to fix problems with previous design ("form follows failure") influenced by cost, consumer interest and consumers' view of what something is Just like the title says, Petrowski looks at how and why we developed the fork, the paper clip (at one time people would just drive pins through papers to keep them together), the pop-top canand other everyday items, and why they developed the form they have. His running them is that "form follows function" is nonsense: new forms evolve primarily by trying to fix problems with previous design ("form follows failure") influenced by cost, consumer interest and consumers' view of what something is supposed to look like (there's a dated discussion of rotary phone vs. push-button in one chapter). Petroski's dry, but I find him extremely interesting.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Anne Brown

    3.5 A very interesting look at how everyday objects have evolved over time based on our needs, societal norms, culture, and potential improvements. I think the author does prove his point that "form follows failure" or shortcomings of an invention, rather than "form follows function." Even if some sections were a bit dry or repetitive it did make me look at the objects around me more critically in my day to day tasks. The book definitely dated itself when talking about modern technology (early 90 3.5 A very interesting look at how everyday objects have evolved over time based on our needs, societal norms, culture, and potential improvements. I think the author does prove his point that "form follows failure" or shortcomings of an invention, rather than "form follows function." Even if some sections were a bit dry or repetitive it did make me look at the objects around me more critically in my day to day tasks. The book definitely dated itself when talking about modern technology (early 90's), but I enjoyed seeing the historical examples and photographs that showed how much objects have changed or remained the same.

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