In Memoriam: Petroski remembered for his thoughtful prose on the engineering of things


Alumnus Henry Petroski (MS TAM 1964, PhD TAM 1968) completed a highly theoretical thesis and later broadened his interests considerably, writing popular books on engineering design that emphasized the importance of understanding failures to improve the design process.

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Henry Petroski
Photos courtesy of Duke University.

A professor, engineer, writer and one of MechSE’s most prominent alumni, Henry Petroski passed away from cancer on June 14, 2023. He was 81. 

Petroski (MS TAM 1964, PhD TAM 1968) was MechSE Professor Donald E. Carlson’s first PhD student. Under Carlson’s guidance, Petroski completed a highly theoretical thesis and later broadened his interests considerably, writing several popular books on engineering design that emphasized the importance of understanding failures to improve the design process.

Petroski published books and numerous articles and essays for journals, newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Before joining Duke University, where he served as chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering from 1991 to 2000, Petroski was a mechanical engineer and group leader at Argonne National Laboratory. It was there that he and his son, Stephen J. Petroski, invented a store system laid out with shelves and aisles that radiates from a central hub area known as the “radial store system.”

Prior to that he held teaching positions at both the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Texas at Austin. He retired in 2020 after a 40-year career as the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor in Duke University's Department of Civil Engineering and a professor of history.

Henry Petroski and Donald Carlson
Petroski, left, with Carlson, during his visit back to UIUC in 2008, just two years before Carlson's untimely passing in 2010.

“In 2008, we were successful in attracting Henry back to his alma mater to give two seminars—one in the School of Art and Design and a separate joint seminar in MechSE and CEE,” Professor Emeritus Jim Phillips recalls.  “It was a grand occasion.”

Petroski was a member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering. His other honors include Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), member of the Institute of Engineers of Ireland and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), its highest honor, ASME’s Ralph Coats Roe Award, the Wester Society of Engineers’ Washington Award and the ASCE’s History and Heritage Award. In 2004, he was appointed by former President Bush to the U.S. Nuclear Waste Review Board. In 1994 he received the Grainger College of Engineering Distinguished Service Award.

His worldwide acclaim also came for his thoughtful books exploring the engineering of everyday items such as pencils and toothpicks: To Engineer is Human (1992); The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (1990); Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and The Spanning of America (1995), and An Engineer's Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession (2011).

“By asking why and how a pencil point breaks in the way it does,” he said, “we are not only led to a better understanding of the tools of stress analysis and their limitations, but we are also led to a fuller appreciation of the wonders of technology when we analyze the aptness of such a manufactured product as the common pencil.” [Excerpt from the NYTimes obituary.]

Exploring the interrelationship between success and failure through such well-known catastrophes as the sinking of the Titanic, the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse, Boston’s beleaguered Big Dig, BP’s Deep Water Horizon oil spill, and more, Petroski argued that design failure alone is not the culprit in these tragedies. Taking a historic perspective, he articulated the larger context in which these failures occur and suggests that cultural and socioeconomic factors contribute to the complexity of engineering and technology endeavors.

In his 17th book, To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure, published in 2012, Petroski’s recollections of his days as a graduate student in TAM appear in a chapter titled Mechanics of Failure, which also includes photos of the Talbot Lab crane bay and a portrait of Carlson, along with additional photographs that Phillips provided at the time. 

Since 1991, Petroski had been writing the engineering column in Sigma Xi's American Scientist magazine. Most recently, his “Museum of Bridges” in the May–June 2023 issue, explored the engineering and artwork behind some of the nation’s most iconic bridges.

Petroski is survived by his wife Catherine Petroski, his daughter Karen Petroski (TJ Bross), his son Stephen Petroski (Laura) and grandsons William and Teddy Petroski.

Read the NYTimes obituary >> 

Read the obituary from Sigma Xi >>

Read Duke University’s tribute >>

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This story was published June 26, 2023.