The evolution of useful things

by Henry Petroski

Hardcover, 1992




New York : Knopf, 1992.


"Only Henry Petroski, author of The Pencil, could make one never pick up a paper clip again without being overcome with feelings of awe and reverence. In his new book the author examines a host of techno-trivia questions - how the fork got its tines, why Scotch tape is called that, how the paper clip evolved, how the Post-it note came to be, how the zipper was named, why aluminum cans have hollow bottoms - and provides us with answers that both astonish and challenge the imagination." "In addition to an extended discussion of knives, forks, spoons, and other common devices, the author explains how the interplay of social and technical factors affects the development and use of such things as plastic bags, fast-food packaging, push-button telephones, and other modern conveniences. Throughout the book familiar objects serve to illustrate the general principles behind the evolution of all products of invention and engineering." "Petroski shows, by way of these examples as well as a probing look at the patent process, that the single most important driving force behind technological change is the failure of existing devices to live up to their promise. As shortcomings become evident and articulated, new and "improved" versions of artifacts come into being through long and involved processes variously known as research and development, invention, and engineering. He further demonstrates how the evolving forms of technology generally are altered by our very use of them, and how they, in turn, alter our social and cultural behavior." "In this wonderful mixture of history, biography, and design theory, Henry Petroski brings us to an understanding of an essential question: By what mechanism do the shapes and forms of our made world come to be?"--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member EvaCatHerder
I am not quite done, but I am enjoying this book immensely.
LibraryThing member iayork
All about the context: I found this book to be very illuminating in light of what I do (interaction design) and the books I have read recently on the latest in computational neuroeconomics, maninstream pattern recognotion theory, interaction design, visual design, industrial design, computer engineering, new marketing theory, and information design around complex systems. In fact, this book is almost a stake in the ground on how the manufacturing process, invention, and branding created the artifacts in our environment. Better than the Industrial Desig books I read 10 years ago. I think we would call these "case studies" and "use cases" in modern terminology. I mention all the fields above because every single one of them have an exact doppelganger in the past.

This book is a brilliant look at process and can be used as a research tool when looking at why something like the iPod caught on and why almost everything that has been developed at MIT in recent history (except eInk) has never gained a foothold in popular American culture. In the face of the rise of "everyware" computing, it's adoption in places like Korea and Japan, and only limited use by the rich for personal security in the US, I would say this is a must read for contemporary designers, no matter what depth of complexity their task at hand. This book predates the web, making it very enlightening in light of user-centered design in recent years.

This book looks at the relationship of genius design, corporate R D, pop culture, the feedback loop for product innovation, and the adoption of standards around SIMPLE things. This means these case studies can be used to analyse the failures (and how failure breeds innovation, not "form follows function") of our complex information economy and embedded systems. Society has gone through it all before. And as projects become increasingly team based and open sourced (like Stanford's new, just about anyone can find value in this book based within this context.
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LibraryThing member jorgecardoso
This is a book about failure and how failure drives the design of all things.

Henry Petroski talks about forks, knifes, spoons, paper clips, screws, post-its, zippers, hammers, saws, metal (beberage) cans, ..., and how all these objects evolved through the perception that they failed in some (even if minor) way. The whole book is Petroski's argument against the "form follows function" adage.

The only fault I found on this book is that it is, in my opinion, a bit lengthy. Half-way through the book you will already agree that it is failure, in its many forms, that ultimately drives the evolution of things...
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LibraryThing member mykl-s
The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are by Henry Petroski (1994)
LibraryThing member all4metals
Very good book. It shows how every day products have been developed.
LibraryThing member nmele
While reading this very interesting examination of what principles and factors guide the evolution of tools and other man-made artifacts, I kept wondering what the author might have to say about the iPod, iPhone and so forth. Petroski uses examples as varied as the paper clip, the hammer, bridges and streamlined automobiles to illustrate and argue that the primary motive for innovation is perceived failure to adequately perform a task. An excellent book for anyone interested in technology, innovation or engineering.… (more)
LibraryThing member bluepigeon
So after reading 30 pages in the past 6 months, I gave up. Though the subject matter is interesting, the language is too dry and does not flow. The book reads like a bland academic text book minus the pretty pictures. By the way, I am a scientist and I frequently read highly technical scientific papers (but not in the area of design and architecture.)… (more)
LibraryThing member melydia
The main point this book makes is that "form follows function" is more accurately "form follows failure." From paperclips to silverware to fasteners, design evolves largely in response to how inconvenient the current model is. I liked the historical studies, but once the author gets into modern devices such as voicemail, the book becomes dated very quickly. Up until that point, however, it is an interesting look at everyday useful things.… (more)
LibraryThing member jen.e.moore
Though a little bit dated, this is an interesting discussion of how design and invention work. Rather than "form follows function," Petroski argues, form follows *failure* - specifically the failure of an existing object to work as well as the designer or inventor imagines it might. To illustrate this, he discusses the incremental development of several common items, including the paper clip, the soda can, the fork, and the proliferation of varieties of tools like hammers and screwdrivers. It's not as organized as the subtitle seems to imply - Petroski covers these things not in an orderly fashion but in a sort of meandering way, as they come into his arguments - but it's clear and interesting reading, only a little dense at times.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
The blurbs are bad. One says 'delightful' - it certainly is not that. Neither mentions the author's thesis, which is that: Form does not follow function, it follows failure and fortune. I had to read a lot of the book to glean that statement, though. And I still react with 'so what.' Maybe wannabe inventors and students of design & civil engineering need to be reminded to take nothing for granted, to be always ready to see the problem in existing technologies and be ready to create something that will fulfill the function more effectively, more efficiently, or will be able to be made more cheaply.

But as dry and difficult as that last sentence was, it's got nothing on Petroski's writing. No topic sentences in paragraphs or chapters, no transitions or summaries or organizational cues of any kind. I could not read every word of the book. I did read every word to p. 102, then I turned every page and read every illustration, and occasional paragraphs as they caught my eye. I think I got more out of the part I skimmed than the part I read closely.

I refuse to give this book two stars. It really was a complete waste of my time and I don't want you to waste yours. There are other books and blogs about design and invention that give the layperson much more joy & satisfaction.
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LibraryThing member Razinha
Interesting, but limited in scope. Good observations that very little is revolutionary...most is evolutionary.
LibraryThing member CassandraT
Sometimes to much detail and not enough story.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Did you ever stop to think that the four-tined fork which brings food to your mouth and the two-tined fork you use to hold meat while carving it came from the same food necessity and that they are siblings separated at birth? Probably not, but Petroski did. He goes on to explore to evolution of all sorts of everyday items, like cans and can openers, zippers, and to name a few. His book is filled with interesting facts and even a little humor. The photographs are great, too!… (more)
LibraryThing member Garrison0550
It was a bit like eating toast with nothing on it. But it's easy to pick your battles with this book and read about the items that interest you and disregard those that don't.



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