Pushing the Limits

New Adventures In Engineering, Henry Petroski, Knopf.


The subtitle of Henry Petroski’s latest work is decidedly optimistic, but “Misadventures in Engineering” might be more appropriate. This new collection of 24 essays—all of which originally appeared in American Scientist—Petroski examines the past, present and future of engineering, a discipline known for its astounding technological achievements and equally high-profile disasters. True to its name, “Pushing the Limits” demonstrates how engineers are stretching the boundaries of technology, yet Petroski’s most compelling tales exemplify what happens when engineers push a little too far. 

A professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, Petroski devotes the majority of the book to dams and bridges. Some subjects have long-since failed (California’s St. Francis Dam); some have threatened to fail (London’s Millennium Bridge); and some yet may fail (China’s still under construction Three Gorges Dam). But virtually all his vignettes remind us that there's a price to be paid for building structures that are lighter, longer and taller than ever before. 

To a certain degree, this collection suffers from the fact that the individual articles are only loosely related to each other, making the book uneven and disjointed. On the other hand, the most riveting piece concerns neither a dam nor a bridge and warrants nary a mention of a professional engineer. In “Vanities of the Bonfire,” Petroski analyzes the deadly November 1999 collapse of the annual “Bonfire,” an enormous leaning tower of logs created by enthusiastic Texas A&M college students who knew little about engineering. With a 90-year tradition of mostly uneventful “Bonfire” construction the students became too complacent about safety and 12 people died when the log pile spontaneously collapsed. Petroski’s message is clear: “It is human nature to build on past successes with a bravado . . . that so often can be checked only by tragedy,” he says.