Book Review: To Engineer is Human

Lots of meat, without the maths that makes it hard to swallow.

When I was preparing to apply to become a chartered member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a mentor – I think as a warning against complacency – challenged me that I should be reading at least 6 books about engineering a year. From my experience, most engineering books are text books, so I asked him which books he suggested, and he couldn’t think of a single example of a readable book about engineering!

Petroski’s books then are rare gems of attempting to span that large distance between the remote island of engineering knowledge and the mainland of public imagination. Reading it as a structural engineer there was plenty that I was already familiar with, but also lots that was new. He draws on examples from both sides of the Atlantic, so having learnt my trade in the UK I found the discussion of iron bridges particularly Othmar Ammann (Quebec Bridge) and the Roeblings (Brooklyn Bridge) fresh and new. While others may be less familiar with Beauvais Cathedral, cracks in Big Ben or Paxton and the Crystal Palace.

His opening chapters suggest that the book is for a non-technical audience, but he sometimes lapses into advice for professionals such as lamenting that our drawings are no longer as beautiful as Galileo’s. The vocabulary is probably only accessible for teenagers and up (discussion of monographs, commissions, cantilevers etc.) but other than that, in my opinion it is accessible for a non-technical reader.

If I was being picky, I would like to have seen an over-arching story arc. Like there is in the excellent Fermat’s Last Theorem, which keeps you turning the pages. Petroski has research and includes an impressive amount of breadth – references to nursery rhymes, poetry, photos, quotes and lots of stories – but there is no one thread drawing it all together.

I think it could also benefit from more detail of the human side of the characters. For example my impression is that Brunel was quite a risk taker, he sought his father’s advice for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, but then ignored it when he was advised to include a central support; which was quite bold for a 20-year-old designing the longest spanning bridge in the UK!

So in summary, this book is a good introduction to engineering with plenty of nuggets and reminders for the more seasoned professional. It’s not a gripping page turner because there isn’t an over-arching narrative arc, but I enjoyed reading it and got several pages of quotes and stories from it that have broadened me out a bit and I’ll no doubt use again.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: To Engineer is Human

  1. I have similar concerns about the new book “Think Like An Engineer”, which felt like a collection of anecdotes about people who had invented stuff, without any overarching story arc or depth.

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