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An Engineering Quartet

March 1, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 9


THE ENGINES OF OUR INGENUITY: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture, by John H. Lienhard, Oxford University Press, 2003, 262 pages, $14.95 (ISBN 0-19-516731-7)

SMALL THINGS CONSIDERED: Why There Is No Perfect Design, by Henry Petroski, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, 288 pages, $25 (ISBN 1-4000-4050-7)

WHY THINGS BREAK: Understanding the World by the Way It Comes Apart, by Mark E. Eberhart, Harmony Books, 2003, 256 pages, $24 (ISBN 1-4000-4760-9)

A CENTURY OF INNOVATION: Twenty Engineering Achievements That Transformed Our Lives, by George Constable and Bob Somerville, Joseph Henry Press, 2003, 248 pages, $45 (ISBN 0-309-08908-5)

"We are mirrored by our machines, and the corollary is also inescapable: We mirror our machines." These lines from the first chapter of "The Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture" encapsulate the complex dynamics between humans and technology. Whether we love it, hate it, or merely accept it, the world in which we live is built on our species' long history of technological advance. The cultural impact of technology is not exactly a new literary topic, but "Engines" and three other recent books on the subject offer fresh perspectives that aid our understanding of humankind's love affair with engineering.

In "Engines," author John H. Lienhard has reworked more than 10 years' worth of scripts from his public radio series of the same name into a thought-provoking narrative that spans the technological timeline from the prehistoric origins of agriculture to alchemy in the Middle Ages to the computer boom of the late-20th century. Originally published in 2000, the book was recently reissued in paperback.

To illustrate the close ties between man and machine, Lienhard explains technological innovation through the life stories of various inventors. He particularly delights in retelling the scientists' more colorful history, such as the rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla that led to the development of the electric chair.

The author also makes himself the voice of "unsung heroes." These are the many scientists and inventors who have contributed to landmark technologies but who are not revered in textbooks. As Lienhard states in the introduction, "no good work ... is one person's doing."

Lienhard's post as professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston makes him uniquely qualified to cover the wide spectrum of science history he uses to illustrate his points. The one minor flaw of his book is that it sometimes feels like what it is: many small finished pieces cobbled together into a new, larger package.

Henry Petroski gives readers a different spin on engineering history in his book, "Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design." Instead of focusing on great names in science, Petroski uses the development of ubiquitous items to make the point that no design is perfect.

"All design involves choice, and choices often have to be made to satisfy competing constraints," he writes. In other words, each item we use is actually a compromise. The design of even the most basic tools--from light bulbs to staircases to potato peelers--has to be carefully balanced among factors such as available materials, manufacturing cost, ease of use, and prevailing notions of style.

Petroski's writing reflects his role as a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University. He projects the image of a genial tour guide, ambling casually through a forest of information, plucking out objects of interest and pausing over them to offer his personal reflections.

Although the book will clearly strike a chord with engineers, Petroski's style makes "Small Things" easy for a wide audience to enjoy. In the end, readers should gain a new appreciation for the extensive thought and care that go into all the little things that we normally take for granted.

Like Petroski, Mark E. Eberhart wants people to consider engineering from an unusual perspective. "Why Things Break: Understanding the World by the Way It Comes Apart" is his semiautobiographical look at the impacts of materials failure and a call to action for scientists and engineers to continue studying why as much as how and when.

Beginning with early research in materials science, Eberhart quickly focuses on our modern need to assign accountability when a product breaks. He calmly examines disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic and the Challenger space shuttle explosion. He also shows a softer side of materials failure, such as why Kevlar is great for making kayaks and why adding boron to glass revolutionized cookware.

A professor of chemistry and geochemistry at Colorado School of Mines, Eberhart illustrates a boyish exuberance for his vocation as a "quantum chemist" by sharing tidbits of his life history. In one example, he reflects on a childhood fascination with glass marbles. For him, the toys were objects of beauty, and he would never play with them for fear of causing them to develop ugly pits and cracks. His interest in the chemistry of fractured materials stemmed in part from his desire to "have my marbles and use them too."

Eberhart's lighthearted approach, however, doesn't necessarily mean the book is an easy read. A few well-placed definitions and illustrations could have made it better suited for a general audience.

On the other end of the spectrum lies "A Century of Innovation: Twenty Engineering Achievements That Transformed Our Lives," a new coffee-table book by freelance writers George Constable and Bob Somerville. With a compelling cover design, bold title, and a little name dropping--Neil Armstrong and Arthur C. Clarke contributed the foreword and afterword, respectively--this book immediately invites attention from a broad audience.

Each chapter profiles one of the "top 20" engineering-related innovations that have had significant and largely positive effects on humankind. These include electricity, automobiles, radios, computers, and high-performance materials. A host of professional engineering societies coordinated by the National Academy of Engineering created the list by polling their memberships and narrowing down the finalists.

The innovations are presented in the order they were rated from highest to lowest impact, but the chapters are templated to give individual topics equal attention. Each chapter includes a historical summary, a perspective essay written by a notable in the field, and a two-page diagram depicting a sample process. The chapter on electrification, for instance, shows in pictures what happens when a light switch is turned on.

The informational content of this oversized book is true to the style of a coffee-table book. Almost all of the interesting tidbits are found in the captions accompanying the ample photographs and graphics. Constable and Somerville have written their chapters like a combination of school textbook and promotional brochure, but at least the long list of reviewers suggests that the content is accurate.

Despite the differences in focus and presentation, each of these four engineering books contributes to the noble effort of making science as engaging as any best-selling novel. With only a couple sour notes in the score, this quartet should make sweet music for engineers and nonengineers alike.

VICTORIA GILMAN is an editorial assistant with C&EN's ACS News & Special Features department.


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