Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design


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This last focus has meant that Petroski's work is also typically deeply grounded in history.

Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design

No reader of this journal should be unfamiliar with the contributions he has made to the popular understanding of the processes of technological change as well as to historical knowledge of a range of technical areas. It is a bit difficult to place the current book into the context of Petroski's body of work. On the one hand, these seven essays—the work began as a series of lectures at Princeton University—fit comfortably within key themes of his work, particularly as the title suggests concern for the processes of design and the role of failure in them.

On the other hand, it is not so clear how they are supposed to advance our understanding of these themes beyond ground that the author has tread many times before.

To be sure, the essays cover a mixture of familiar territory entire chapters are devoted to bridges and skyscrapers and novel areas like illustrated lectures and medicine bottles. But how do these efforts extend his message beyond what he has already argued? In the introduction of the current work, he explains that "this book explores the interplay between success and failure in design and, in particular, describes the important role played by reaction to and anticipation of failure in achieving success" p. Compare this with the statement from the preface of his first work in this area, written more than twenty years ago: "To understand what engineering is and what engineers do is to understand how failures can happen and how they can contribute more than success to advance technology" To Engineer Is Human [], p.


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While Petroski acknowledges that there are many factors that shape design besides functional failure, he attempts to account for as much as possible with his focus on failure. Each step in the development of a technology is accounted for by the perception of failure. Among the surest ways to obviate the failure of any structure is to anticipate all the different ways in which it can fail.

Thus, in designing the Minneapolis bridge, engineers had to consider the consequence of a single steel member breaking, buckling or otherwise failing to carry its intended load. The intended load on a bridge consists of two distinct parts.

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Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design by Henry Petroski, Paperback | Barnes & Noble®

The so-called dead load is the weight of the steel and concrete that makes up the structure itself. The remainder of the load consists of the weight of the traffic, which in theory can be controlled, and the less controllable forces produced by ice, snow, wind and possibly an earthquake.


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  5. All expected combinations of these loads -- and how the structure responds to them -- must be taken into account when a bridge is designed. Engineers often look to examples of success and failure to guide their designs.

    Paradoxically, it is the failures that are the more reliable teachers. As the case of the Minneapolis bridge so clearly shows, a structure that stands successfully for decades is not necessarily a sound design.

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    However, when a bridge fails, it provides invaluable lessons in what not to do. There are many historical examples of major bridge failures, but one that comes fast to mind today is the collapse of the year-old Silver Bridge across the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, W.

    Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design

    Silver Bridge -- which took its name from the color of its paint -- was a chain suspension structure that collapsed suddenly in rush-hour traffic, sending 75 vehicles into the water and killing 46 people. Nodelman University of Winnipeg Search for more papers by this author. Read the full text. Tools Request permission Export citation Add to favorites Track citation.

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