Monday, April 1, 2013

The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski

Reviewed by Nancy

Have you ever started to zip up your jacket and wondered, “Who came up with this idea of a zipper? The fork, the paper clip, the hammer... how did these items develop?  How did they come to be? Who thinks this stuff up, anyway?”  The answers to these questions and many more are to be found in Henry Petroski's book, The Evolution of Useful Things.

Mr. Petroski, Professor of Civil Engineering at Duke University and the author of many other books on engineering, seems to be compelled to share his knowledge by offering it up in books, and that is very fortunate for the rest of us.

This tome is definitely not for everyone, but if you have ever experienced that passing curiosity, you might want to read Dr. Petroski's book.

Saws, shoes, silverware, nails, napkins, paperclips, keys, bottles, fast food packaging… information on the development of all of these items is to be found in The Evolution of Useful Things. We are so used to having these things that sometimes it seems they have been with us always, like death and taxes. Other things we are sure are new inventions.

Who would have thought straight pins were in use five thousand years ago? The Sumerians made them out of iron and bone, employing them as clothes fasteners. Straight pins eventually were used to hold pieces of paper together, as paper clips were not developed until the mid-eighteen hundreds.

Sometimes there is a real time lapse between the invention of one thing and the invention of something else that would seem to be essential.  Peter Durand was the first person to figure out how to preserve food by putting it in a can. Despite the fact that he came up with this in 1810, the first can opener was not patented until 1858, and can openers did not come into common usage until some years after that. People were so accustomed to whacking their cans open with chisels and axes they saw no reason to be bothered with the early, cumbersome can openers.

The author includes information on patents, the patent application process, patent attorneys, patent royalties, etc., as well as information on the history of engineering.

Perhaps it’s time for you to discover your inner engineer. Or if you don’t have an inner engineer to discover, perhaps your regular old self might enjoy reading this book.

Why is it important that while buttons were in use in Roman times, the buttonhole did not develop until the thirteenth century? Beats me, but it is fun to know.

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