Good Books about Engineering

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

Sir Isaac Newton

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!

Although not the easiest task, I have found some good books that I would recommend to those wanting to learn a bit more about engineering in an accessible way. And in no particular order, they are as follows:

Tony Hunt’s Structures Notebook

I’m a great lover of short books, especially those that can be read in a single sitting, and this is one such pearl. Anthony Hunt was a famous structural engineer who had his own practice that worked variously with Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Nicholas Grimshaw. His notebook is slimmed down minimalist introduction to the principles and possibilities of structural engineering. Mostly simple line sketches with a few words of description it goes through step by step from simple ideas (shear, bending, flexure..) to how they can work themselves out in practice (shells, barrel vaults, nets..). I use it at work to induct placement students as it takes less than an hour to read.

Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down

This is a paperback by JE Gordon – one of the founders of materials science – draws on his diverse experience to explain a wide variety of engineering principles. I read this book about ten years ago, so my memory is a little hazy but I remember a section on dress-making to explain stress lines and his discussion based on first hand experience of the merits of welding vs. riveting, which was very interesting to think about the practicalities or making and checking that the joins are good. The book is a typical sized paperback, which took me a few hours to read. I remember enjoying it and have since recommended to at least one person who was wondering about whether to become an engineer.

Collapse: Why Buildings Fall Down

Each chapter of this book is dedicated to a different engineering failure and the lessons that were learnt from it. Although this might be interesting to the casual reader, it’s probably most useful to structural engineers so they learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Hardback with colour pictures and large font it was easy to read and I hope I learned some lessons from it! The chapter on the Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse particularly sticks in my mind.

To Engineer is Human.

The author – Henry Petroski – a professor of civil engineering at Duke University has written several books which could be candidates for this list, although so far this is the only one I’ve read. I think the title is a clever play on the phrase “to err is human” and the book is a discussion about engineering mistakes and what we can learn from them. He draws on a wonderful breadth of stories from around the world and his own experience. I’ve written a more thorough book review of it here.

So that’s as far as I’ve got at the moment! Although some kind people on twitter have pointed me to these, which I also plan to check out:

Where Stuff Comes From

The New Science of Strong Materials

Why Buildings Fall Down: Why Structures Fail

Exploding Modern Architecture

4 thoughts on “Good Books about Engineering

  1. You should read Jacques Heymans books about the masonry arch. Excellent books, and good non mathematical descriptions of arch and dome and buttress behaviour, and there is also a more technical one. Excellent for structural principles.

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  2. Tony Hunt and JE Gordon (plus his other book “The new science of strong materials”) are both classics which appeared early in my engineering education. I’m currently reading a new book by Pettifer and Fookes called “Geomodels in Engineering Geology – An Introduction” which I think could make a really good teaching aid for people new to geology but needing to understand how different landscape features will affect what engineering is possible at a given site. It’s great because each chapter starts with a 3D model of a landscape with different rocks etc, then some commentary, followed by a double page spread of photos illustrating the sorts of geological features or engineering issues (soft ground, voids etc) that an engineer might expect to find as a result. I’m interested in developing a short course in engineering geology for colleagues by combining it with Richard Fortey’s wonderful “The Hidden Landscape”, a very readable account of the story of the British landscape and how the underlying rocks and soils affect what we see on the surface (from vegetation to building materials).

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