Henry Petroski, Whose Books Decoded Engineering, Dies at 81

A civil engineer who became a prolific writer, Henry Petroski looks at the design of everyday objects and structures to explore how they are created and how they fail.

Henry Petroski, Whose Books Decoded Engineering, Dies at 81

He also wrote extensively on the failure of bridges and buildings. He also studied the history of everyday objects such as the pencil.


Henry Petroski died in Durham, N.C., on June 14, in hospice care. He was 81. He was 81.

Catherine Petroski, his wife, confirmed that cancer was the cause.

Dr. Petroski is a professor of civil and environment engineering at Duke University. He adapted 'form follow function', an architectural axiom, into his own -- "form follows failure" -- and has addressed the topic extensively in books and lectures, academic journals, The New York Times, and magazines such as Forbes and American Scientist.

When The Times featured him in 2006, he stated that failure is the core of engineering. Every single calculation an engineer does is a calculation for failure. Understanding how things fail or break is the key to successful engineering.

In "To Engineer is Human: The Role Failure in Successful Design" (1985), Dr. Petroski explored what happens when a design goes horribly wrong. For example, in 1981, two skywalks collapsed in the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, killing 114 people. And in 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed in Washington State, just months after its opening.

After the Hyatt Hotel disaster, Dr. Petroski was asked by a neighbor 'how such a thing can happen'.

He continued to wonder, "did engineers not know how simple a structure such as an elevated skywalk could be built?" He added that he didn't think his neighbor was satisfied with his explanations of the hotel collapse or other failures.

He said he wrote the book to define an engineer.

He told The Times that despite having three degrees in engineering and teaching experience, and being registered as a professional engineering, when a neighbor asked him, "What is engineering?" I replied, "Duh." I couldn't come up with a coherent description of what engineering was. He said that his best attempt was to say, "engineering is the ability to achieve function while avoiding failure."

The pencils were a very prosaic item for Dr. Petroski to analyze failures.

In a 1987 article in the Journal of Applied Mechanics, he described why pencils break using engineering equations.

He concluded that by asking why and how the pencil point breaks, we can better understand the tools for stress analysis, and their limitations. We also gain a greater appreciation of technology, when we examine the suitability of a product like the pencil.


He expanded the article two years later with "The Pencil: a History of Design and Circumstance," a 448-page history of its invention and development, with brands such as Faber-Castell and Dixon Ticonderoga, among others, and included a section about the Concord, Mass., pencil-making family of Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau is best known for his writings about living in the woods and his experiences in "Walden." He was also a pencil engineer, who self-taught, who discovered the mixture of graphite, clay, and other ingredients that makes European pencils superior. Thoreau then helped his family adapt this mixture to their pencil manufacturing.

The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, published in 2007, was Dr. Petroski's second book, nearly 20 years after the publication of 'The Pencil.' It explained the evolution of this humble object from its use by early humans to the invention of the modern toothpick in the 19th Century.

The humorist Joe Queenan, who reviewed the book for The Times mocked its 400-page weight and the necessity of a tome with a size like 'toothpicks.

He wrote: 'It's not so much a novel as it is a threat.' If you enjoyed 'The Toothpick', wait until you see 'The Grommet'.

Petroski added, "This is enough. Knock it off.


Dr. Petroski grew up in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn as well. Victoria (Grygrowych) Petroski was his mother. Henry Petroski, his father, worked as a rate clerk at trucking companies.

Dr. Petroski, of Durham, N.C. told The Herald-Sun in 2004 that he remembered how he read the labels and explained how the contents made it to our table. I admired his ability to tell a tale with such little information. This, I believe, influenced me.

He continued: "As a kid, I didn't read labels as much as I played with cans and boxes to build things. I wanted to make tall towers from tincans and bridges from boxes.

He received his bachelor's in mechanical engineering in 1963 from Manhattan College, in the Bronx. In 1964 he earned a masters in theoretical and applied Mechanics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and in 1968 a Ph.D.

Catherine Groom was studying English in the University of Illinois when he met her. He was an occasional poet who wooed Catherine with sonnets. They married in 1966. He is survived by his wife, Karen Petroski, their daughter Stephen, who is a mechanical engineering and patent lawyer, his brother William, his sister Marianne Petroski, and two grandchildren.

Dr. Petroski was a professor of engineering at the University of Texas at Austin from 1968 to 1974. He then joined the Argonne Laboratory in Lemont (Ill.), where he served as a group leader for the reactor analysis division. In 1980, he moved to Duke University. His teaching schedule allowed him to write about engineering in a non-technical way. He retired in 2020.

Earl Dowell said, in a telephone interview, that he worked at the intersection of history and engineering. His books were read by a variety of engineers and non-engineers. They presented the big picture of engineering rather than the specifics.

Other books by the author include "The Evolution of Useful Things" (1992), "Small Things Considered": Why There is No Perfect Design (2003), and "To Forgive Design: Understand Failure", which picks up where the book To Engineer Is Human left off, and analyzes the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, NASA's lost space shuttles and other engineering failures.

Dr. Petroski was awarded fellowships by the National Humanities Center and Guggenheim Foundation. He was a structural engineer and designer who conducted research sponsored by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the National Science Foundation and other organizations.

In one of Dr. Petroski's last books, he turned his engineer's eye and curiosity to the midcentury cedar log cabin in Maine that he and wife had spent their summers. He studied its strange structure, and he delved into the mystery surrounding Robert Phinney. The engineer and amateur woodworker who built it.

In 'The House With Sixteen Handmade Doors : A Tale Of Architectural Choice And Craftsmanship,' (2014), Dr. Petroski writes, "Phinney wasn't a classical architecture nor, as far I know, even a student in architecture."

What I can deduce from the design and construction of his house is that it was not common. Le Corbusier called it une machine ahaber, a machine to live in. It was a customized machine. It was a building fit for an engineer who worked with precision calculating machines.