Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Evolution of Useful Things (Henry Petroski)

Maria had picked up a used copy of The Evolution of Useful Things for me, and given how much I liked Donald Norman’s The Psychology of Everyday Things (review), it definitely sounded like I would like it. Unfortunately, it turns out I’m not really interested enough in paper clips to take on a couple hundred pages of passages like this:

A great variety of such fasteners came into existence in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and there was fierce competition among them. As in the evolution of all artifacts, each variation of fastener promised to solve some or all of the problems of the preexisting forms. One style, the Premier fastener, advertised that its points did not become crushed “as in fasteners similar in appearance to the Premier.” Fasteners of dissimilar appearance were also developed to answer the objection to the paper-piercing points altogether.

(I’ll refrain from boring everyone by listing all the reasons why that last sentence is the prose equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard.)

I did make it about 80 pages in before moving on, so I can say that Petroski’s basic argument is that the commonplace phrase “form follows function” is wrongheaded and entirely inadequate as an explanation for how many of the objects we take for granted—forks, paperclips, zippers, etc.—came to be. Instead, he argues, these objects are the current result of a long, often meandering developmental process, one driven by the shortcomings of previous designs: “form follows failure,” as he puts it. Interesting enough. It turned out the book wasn’t really for me, but if you’re in to the history of these kinds of design and engineering problems, and if you didn’t blink at the excerpt above, it might be for you.


Annie said...

Thanks for saving me the time I would have spent on those 80 pages. That's the kind of book I would start and try to keep pushing myself through. But you're right. The prose is too painful.

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