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Invention By Design by Henry Petroski

01/10/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Invention in the USA - or Buy Invention in the UK

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pub: Harvard University Press, 1997. 242 page illustraed indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: a couple pounds if you look around. ISBN: 0-674-46367-6.

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Fitting in books for research around review work will sometimes let you in on my thinking, let alone how much I plan ahead. I was curious about ‘Invention By Design’ by Henry Petroski because most of the time when you think future technology you tend to think of the big stuff like spacecraft or maybe even the very small nanotechnology rather than the day-to-day items that we take for granted. Knowing how some of our everything items have evolved can also allow you to speculate how they might look in the future or even stay the same way. Anything else is just a matter of scale.

His first chapter on the evolution of the paperclip and why there are so many versions out there on something we take for granted is fascinating and the fact there was even a new design out there as late as 1992 shows how its continually developing. All of them have depended on Hooke’s Law of material’s elasticity to getting the most out of a limited amount of material and avoiding snagging the paper it’s supposed to tag together. Petroski shows the design patents as well as the machinery that was used to make this humble design which should make any inventors amongst you think.

If you never thought technical know-how wasn’t involved in something as simple as a pencil then you can learn everything here from tensile strength and stopping the nib breaking off to how to cut it, why the lead doesn’t slide out of the wood and what chemi-sealed is all about. If you know anyone who wants a non-technology life ask them what do they want to write with. A technological marvel and charcoal is awfully messy.

Equally interesting is watching the development of the zip as a means to replace the number of fasteners our ancestors used to use to do up their clothes which must have taken an age to do. At its most basic, a zip is a hook and eye system and seeing the patent diagrams shows how it’s done although I wish there’d been some instruction showing how to repair them. Petroski goes on to show the development of Velcro – a name derived from the French word ‘velour’ and ‘crochet’ – which is still a variation of this. The newer plastic zips moves away from metal and interlocking parts shows how far things are moving ahead although it hasn’t been used for anything but bags. No doubt the future will go towards molecular bonding but studying how it evolved is a learning experience.

If you think all these inventions happened in the past, then you need to look at metal cans and how they’ve moved away from the so-called church key you pulled and chucked to take a drink. The change to the current tab was to ensure there wouldn’t be any lost aluminium but that’s only happened in the past twenty years. Examining how the shape of the can has slowly changed but still has to abide within certain shape perimeters shows how much you, the consumer, accepts a suitable shape. This chapter is also of interest in explaining how engineers design by working out from how something would fail first than solely just invent because it seemed like a good idea. Something that is worth considering if you’re designing something for a Science Fiction story. I think this of all things in this book made the biggest impact on me.

Just in case you think this book is all about common-day objects, Petroski moves onto such subjects as the development of telephone to fax and a brief introduction to aircraft and more specifically to the problems of fly-by-wire and getting the computer software to understand when not to restrict the pilots. There’s also a lesson on being aware that humans need to understand the information their instrument panels give them and not detail they don’t.

If you thought engineering didn’t require some knowledge of biology, Petroski shows when it comes to sewage removal and hospital hygiene that a fresh engineer’s eye can make connections and spot things that needs to be done. Of course, it did help that the likes of Dr. John Snow discovering the causes of cholera and as a widespread problem at the time was definitely in the people’s consciousness. Considering that wherever there is excessive flooding that cholera still raises its head today, one can only hope there will be more work in considering greater drainage or at least some safe areas in such conditions.

He also explains how the use of computers has enabled the calculation of complex formula when it comes to building things such as plumbing, bridges and buildings where once upon a time it took teams of mathematicians to do. The chapter on bridges starts off in my neck of the woods and the development of Iron Bridge and cantilever bridges which led to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco using the same principles at a much larger scale. Looking at how the design is built up it soon becomes apparent how the two ends of the bridges meet in the middle. The principle is so sound that there’s a great photograph showing two men holding up a man in the middle without any stress on their own arms.

As I pointed out from the start, technology is an important facet of Science Fiction and the more you’re aware of how it is used in our current lives, let alone how it evolved will provide some dimension to your stories if you want to make it more than background detail. Petroski does not make anything too complicated and although there is discussion about the maths involved, he doesn’t bog you down with detail in that area but from the practical end results. The copy of the book I bought is on its third printing which shows that it is still being read for what could be considered a specialist book. That should speak for itself.

GF Willmetts

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This book has 94 votes in the sci-fi charts

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