In This Issue
Spring Bridge: From the Frontiers of Engineering and Beyond
March 25, 2015 Volume 45 Issue 1
Bridge, spring 2015, frontiers of engineering

An Interview with . . . Henry Petroski

Friday, March 20, 2015

Author: Henry Petroski

An Interview with . . .Henry Petroski

Henry Petroski (NAE) is a professor of both civil engineering and history at Duke University and a prolific author. Photo by Catherine Petroski.

Ron Latanision (RML): Henry, we are very pleased that you are willing to talk with us. Let me briefly explain how this all came about. Last year Cameron and I were thinking that we needed to add a new dimension to the Bridge. Engineers have an impact in all sorts of ways in our culture, not only in terms of building bridges and developing new iPhones and the like. We thought it would be a good idea to look at what kinds of involvement engineers have had in the culture of the United States and the world.

We began the series with an interview with Richard Blanco, a poet who is also a civil engineer. We learned that there are politicians who are engineers and that led us to John Sununu. Hopefully, you will be followed by Charley Johnson, a former NFL quarterback. We are now very glad to have an engineer who not only teaches engineering but also is a well-known writer. We are delighted that you are available to talk with us today.

Henry Petroski (HP): I am honored. I have read the first two interviews.

RML: That is great. As with the others, we’re going to record this conversation, transcribe it, and send it for you to review. Does that sound all right?

HP: That sounds fine.

Cameron Fletcher (CHF): It’ll be a fairly short turnaround; is there any reason that might not be feasible for you?

HP: Not over the next three weeks.

RML: What happens in three weeks, Henry? I am just curious.

HP: My editor is visiting this weekend and I expect that I am going to have a deadline.

CHF: What is your new book?

HP: I am taking a historical look at American infrastructure, all aspects of it—the usual, the condition of roads, potholes; I also go into some unusual details—where did lane markings come from, why are they the colors they are. It turns out that this was a very important stage in the organization and control of traffic. Early roads had no markings at all on them. There were a lot of accidents, especially going around blind curves; putting a centerline down the road turned out to be an enormous benefit to road safety. But then for decades, literally, there were debates about whether the lines should be white or yellow. I trace things like that, and where the traffic light came from. Then I get into current politics, or rather policy: How are we going to pay for the infrastructure? Where do we get the money? Do we increase the gas tax? And so forth.

The timing of this book is going to be pretty touchy because these are developing issues. One of the things my editor and I have to talk about is exactly when this book is going to be published so I can aim for some kind of closure on the issues.

CHF: Infrastructure is a hot topic these days. Are you considering other aspects besides transportation?

HP: Principally, I am doing roads and bridges because that is what I know the most. That alone is more than a book can handle, it turns out. I do touch on other aspects of infrastructure, but I don’t go into any depth about them. I want to keep this book focused, and I think spreading it out over all of infrastructure wouldn’t make for a very coherent book.

I do have one chapter where I talk about the American Society of Civil Engineers and its report cards issued every three years or so. They cover the whole spectrum of infrastructure in the United States, so in that chapter I get away from the focus on transportation, but then I bring the discussion back to roads and bridges to talk about infrastructure issues in a more focused way.

RML: You mentioned in passing the politics of the issue. On both sides of the aisle in Congress, there is agreement that the infrastructure and particularly bridges and roads in the United States need to be improved but disagreement on how to pay for it.

HP: That is exactly right. But neither side wants to give the other side an advantage politically. The president’s federal budget was just released—in fact, it has a bridge on the cover. I guess that shows how important the subject is to the politicians in Washington.

RML: I hope in your book you might somehow encourage policymakers to think rationally about the fact that, if infrastructure is so fundamental to our standard of life and commerce and other aspects of our culture, we really need to take care of it and come together and figure out how to pay for it.

HP: I certainly agree with you. I also think engineers, at least in my experience, should think more about politics and public policy. I have had arguments with some of my colleagues, not necessarily my current ones, about whether they really were expressing their opinions enough about what is right and wrong with regard to significant infrastructure policies. Some of them have told me they did not think that was their place. They thought they were the technical people and that was it. I think that is disappointing.

We certainly try to teach our students that, as engineers, there are important public policy issues that they are very close to and are expert in technically, and that gives them additional insight into where policy should go.

CHF: What do you think is a good way to encourage your colleagues and peers to expand their view of themselves to the policy sphere?

HP: I guess try to catch them as students before they get indoctrinated the other way. For some reason, whether it is early education or the environment in which they grow up, they have this mindset. That has been my experience. Some think that they should be involved in everything, others think they should be involved in nothing. I think it has a lot to do with personality, with personal confidence about whether you have the self-assuredness of being correct in your conclusions. I do not think a lot of engineering education conveys to engineering students these ideas.

I have been getting a little experience with first-year students at the university. It is becoming clear over the years that they are becoming further and further removed from current events. These are not just engineers, I am talking about across the curriculum because I teach a freshman seminar in which I have students that are engineers and nonengineers alike. I have learned that I can’t just make a reference to something that is happening. The students do not read the newspaper, they do not seem to follow the news, politics generally. They are not acting like engaged citizens.

When I was in school (I guess I am showing my age when I say things like that) we used to take courses in citizenship, where we learned about the organization of government and what the citizen’s responsibility was—not only to vote, but to know the issues. Your expertise was a contribution to the exercise of government in some way.

RML: Kids now use social media far more than they read the newspapers.

HP: I have always thought of the local newspaper as a collection of social media. I read our local newspaper every day. It has a lot of letters to the editor, it is a public forum and there is a lot of local news. I cannot imagine something being closer to the real issues of the neighborhood. Students today just don’t read papers. But then, when I was young, neither did I do so closely. I had a newspaper route; I folded the papers every day, but I didn’t really read them. I would read the headlines only because they were staring at me. I wrote a memoir about this. Before writing that book, I went back and read the papers I had delivered and was amazed at what I had missed.

CHF: Looking at the range of topics you have covered in your books, it seems to me you could have pursued a host of interests. What prompted you to choose engineering as your platform from which to explore all these topics?

HP: I think the honest answer is that engineering found me. It was precipitated by Sputnik. I was beginning to think about college and majors and so forth when Sputnik went up in 1957. Afterward, there was a very conscious effort in the country to encourage students to go into engineering and science and math so we could go beat the Soviets.

It is not unlike the emphasis today on the STEM curriculum—science, technology, engineering, and math—although I don’t think that what’s happening today is quite as focused. In the Sputnik era there were fellowships and scholarships given out to encourage students to study engineering and science. I guess there were probably a lot of research grants that went to faculty at that time, but that was outside my knowledge. Today, it seems like a lot of the money is going to curriculum as opposed to students.

RML: I, too, am a product of that era. I think there was a great deal of fear on the part of the American public and the government, and that was a tremendous incentive and motivation to produce more scientists and engineers so that we could keep pace with the Soviets. I think we both were beneficiaries of that in lots of ways.

I am curious about your teaching and your research and then your transition to writing. You are a civil engineer—

HP: I am in a civil engineering department and I have the title of professor of civil engineering, but my degrees are in mechanical engineering and mechanics, theoretical and applied mechanics in particular. Mechanics historically has been taught in the civil engineering department at Duke, so when I was hired here to teach mechanics I ended up in the civil engineering department. In fact, I didn’t know much about civil engineering at all when I was appointed. I took it upon myself to really study it, almost as if I were a student again, because I wanted to be able to communicate with my colleagues and of course with the students who were studying civil engineering.

That got me interested in a lot of things that I continue to have a deep interest in, like bridges and infrastructure. I have been always very grateful for the opportunity to do so. It was sort of an accident, but it has worked out very well.

With regard to how I ended up in engineering: When I was going to college I had a circle of friends, and we used to talk a lot, usually over a beer down at the local place. There weren’t standardized tests in engineering per se; they were in science and math and vocabulary and language skills and so forth. We would ask ourselves, If we are so good in science and math, how come we are studying engineering? Why aren’t we studying science and math? We became rather introspective about this stuff. I never changed my major to science or math, but I did vacillate between civil and mechanical engineering and changed my major. I think I went back and forth a couple of times.

I ended up in mechanical engineering largely because I had a fairly bad experience working for the New York City Traffic Department one summer among a lot of civil engineers who were just not inspiring, let’s put it that way. They watched the clock and the thermometer because there was a rule that if the temperature got to a certain degree, the work day was over. I still learned a lot working for them, I got out in the field a little bit. It was very interesting.

I would say my friends and I had a very liberal education even though we were majoring in engineering. We took courses in philosophy, economics, literature, history—I enjoyed every course I took, except maybe thermodynamics. Everything was interesting. Whatever was thrown at us we just soaked it up.

CHF: It sounds like you are advocating more of a liberal arts or humanities education.

HP: I wouldn’t go that far. We had to take a lot more credit hours, and so we had plenty of room in the curriculum back then. This was before computers pretty much. I feel that my education was well rounded. As a result, no subject really scared me off. You were asking before about the range of things I write about. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say nothing intimidates me, but I don’t say I can’t deal with something because I don’t know anything about it. I didn’t know anything about engineering before I studied it. You study something and you learn something.

RML: I bet you didn’t take a course in etiquette, Henry, did you? I did as an undergraduate.

HP: I did have “charm school” in graduate school. It was not a formal course. I was a teaching assistant, and anybody teaching a course for the first time had to go to charm school, including professors. This was at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. It was expected that you would wear a jacket and tie to teach. We would have to demonstrate what our lecture was going to be for the coming week and we had to have the proper demeanor to teach. It was all taken very seriously.

The jacket and tie didn’t bother me too much because I wore them all through high school, I was used to that. But the idea of practicing and auditioning your lectures, that was something new. Just teaching was something new. I still to this day don’t know how I taught my first class because I didn’t feel comfortable in front of audiences at the time.

RML: You taught at the University of Illinois and at Texas…

HP: That’s right. I went to the University of Illinois as a graduate student. I received a fellowship, then they also offered me an opportunity to teach, first as a teaching fellow and later I became a teaching assistant to support myself because my professor did not have any research grants at the time. I taught just about every year I was a graduate student. I ended up with the rank of instructor while I was still a graduate student. Then I went to the University of Texas at Austin for my first teaching job as an assistant professor. When I interviewed for the job, it was in the Department of Engineering Mechanics. When I arrived, I was informed that I was now in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics. I did not expect that. I taught there for about five years.

That’s when I transitioned to writing. I had three degrees in engineering, I had practiced engineering, and I was a registered professional engineer (while I was at Texas, the legislature passed a law defining teaching as practicing engineering, so if you were teaching engineering you were supposed to be registered). However, when one of my neighbors asked me, What is engineering? I could not give a concise answer in lay terms. This got me thinking about what is engineering. I wasn’t sure I fully understood it. In all these courses I had taken and taught, in all of this education, that is never talked about. I guess it is sort of a meta-subject or something like that. I started thinking about it.

I had been writing since I was an undergraduate, when I had to do some writing for some of my literature courses, one in particular. The teacher encouraged me and I found that I enjoyed doing it. I continued to do what I would call recreational writing through graduate school and even while I was a young assistant professor. Mostly poetry actually, a lot of it published.

Then I began to be attracted to prose. I’m not sure I can reconstruct right here how that transition occurred. I began to write what I would call parodies or satires on public affairs, public policy relating to engineering and science, energy bills in Congress, budget bills, and so forth. I began to publish these in the New York Times; I didn’t have a regular column or anything, but I think it was a fair number of pieces.

I found that prose was more satisfying than poetry mainly because it had a bigger audience; not too many people actually read poetry. I began to write longer pieces and eventually ended up writing fairly regularly for Technology Review, the MIT magazine. At first I was writing op-ed pieces, opinion pieces, point of view pieces, but more serious than what I was writing for the Times. The editor encouraged me to write some longer pieces, feature articles in particular, and I enjoyed doing it.

I began writing expository pieces about engineering. One that I wrote was about failure. It was one of my first ones because I had gotten interested in failure. This was around the time the Hyatt Regency’s walkway collapsed [Kansas City, 1981]. The editor asked me, Why don’t you write a little sidebar on that because it’s current news? I did, and enjoyed doing that because I was able to explain what happened in nontechnical terms.

Eventually, all this comes together. I never thought I could write a book because it was just too daunting while I’m teaching and supposed to have a research program and everything. The poetry worked fine because I could do that late at night before I went to bed, but longer stuff I really had to devote some time to.

RML: It required some research.

HP: Research and dedicated time and so forth. What is engineering? I still was searching for that answer. Because I had learned that writing about something helped me think about it, I decided I was going to write a book on the topic. Actually, Samuel Florman’s Existential Pleasures of Engineering (1976) was not only influential but actually encouraging. I did not know Sam at the time. Reading his book—and noting the fact that it was reviewed in the New Yorker—reinforced the idea that a book was a way of talking about engineering to a much broader audience, clearly not a technical audience alone. That was what I was aspiring to back then.

One summer I disciplined myself to write for a couple of hours each morning before going to my office. I ended up with a book manuscript. That is where I discovered what I think engineering is. It ended up being all about failure and avoiding failure. The short definition of engineering is the avoidance of failure, design to obviate failure, or however you want to put it.

CHF: What was that book title?

HP: To Engineer Is Human (1985). The subtitle is The Role of Failure in Successful Design.

RML: You mentioned Sam Florman. I am going to quote from a recent message he sent me; he said, “If I ever form a society of engineer writers, Henry will have to be the emperor. Nobody else comes close.” You have one very large fan in Sam Florman, himself a very good writer.

I am curious about a day in the life of Henry Petroski. How do you put into your schedule teaching and research and writing? With something like 18 books, and maybe number 19 is in the works now, you must have a good system for managing your time to get all this done. How do you do that? As an academic, you have a responsibility for teaching and research, and at the same time you are a very prolific writer.

CHF: Are you still writing two hours every morning?

HP: Yes, I write every morning if I can. If I am traveling, I don’t always do it. I tend to read when I am traveling.

I guess I am very lucky today. My institution, the administrators, my dean, they all seem to see my value as a writer about engineering and related things. They give me a lot of leeway. I don’t sit and talk to them about this because as long as they leave me alone, I leave them alone.

I remember when one of my books came out, I think it was The Pencil (1990), I was on “The Today Show” to promote it. Shortly after that, I was in a meeting—I forget the details of what the meeting was about, but it was people from across campus, and the president of the university was there. I had to get up and leave early because I had to teach. As I was leaving, the president said “Henry, congratulations on being on ‘The Today Show’ the other day. That was wonderful exposure for Duke” or something to that effect. He was clearly approving of what I was doing. Coming from the president, that endorsed it to everybody in earshot. Since then, it has been a comfortable relationship I have with the institution.

RML: I think that is entirely appropriate. I mentioned at the outset that one of our goals with this column is to demonstrate that engineers affect the culture of this country. The books you’ve written can be read by a very broad audience. They emphasize engineering, but they also emphasize familiar experiences, not just in terms of pencils and paper clips and so on but also, for example, the most recent one that I’ve seen, The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors (2014). You touch on things that are in the experience of anyone who might pick up the book. That is a contribution in terms of the culture of the country. I really enjoy reading them.

HP: Thanks. I’m pleased to know that.

CHF: What kinds of feedback do you get from readers, particularly those who are not engineers?

HP: It ranges all over the place. Just the other day I got an email from some guy who teaches creative writing and he’s working on a novel, if I get this right, taking place in the 18th century. He is asking me if they still used paper knives back then. There was a time when book pages were not fully cut and you had to use what was called a paper knife to cut them before you proceeded to read. He was trying to be correct technically and not anachronistic in referring to these pages. That kind of stuff comes out of the blue.

RML: What is the answer to that question, Henry?

HP: I had to punt a little because I didn’t want to stop and do any research. I happened not to address paper knives explicitly in my book on books and bookshelves. I told him that I do remember reading books from the library in my own experience that were published in the 20th century that still had pages uncut and were clearly published that way. The question was, When did they start getting cut? I told him in this book I wrote, The Book on the Bookshelf (2000), there are two illustrations that span two centuries. In one of them, the books are being sold unbound; the printer would fold but not cut the pages, the binder would. That was a demarcation point. Exactly when did that happen? Probably over a rather long period of time because, just like today, certain publishers do things a little differently than other publishers. Not everybody is going to do it the same way all of a sudden. That is just a recent example.

RML: What is next in terms of the kinds of writing you do? Do you have novels anywhere in the inventory of things you would like to write?

HP: I have thought about fiction, but have never really gone very far with the idea. I don’t read an awful lot of fiction these days. When I was a student, I did, especially Russian literature, in translation of course. But today I hardly read anything that isn’t related to what I am working on at the time. I read fiction if it is about an engineer or about engineering or some kind of related topic. But as a rule, I don’t read fiction.

I really admire a good plot. I admire how an author will put together a story, but I don’t know that I’ve got it in me. I have enough on my plate right now. I have no immediate plans.

CHF: What fiction have you read about engineers? My curiosity is piqued.

HP: There is a book called No Highway (1948) by Nevil Shute, about an aeronautical engineer. It was made into a movie titled No Highway in the Sky (1951) starring Jimmy Stewart. This guy works in the airplane industry, and certain types of planes start exploding. Ron, you no doubt know the de Havilland Comet story; the novel really is about the Comet. The hero is tracking down what was responsible for the lost planes. It turns out to have been metal fatigue. The book is very explicitly about engineering throughout.

And Sam Florman has written a “novel of survival” titled The Aftermath (2001), in which several hundred engineers attending a conference on a ship sailing off the southeast coast of Africa are among the few survivors of a comet’s impacting the other side of the Earth. The engineers, along with a surviving agricultural community, set themselves the task of rebuilding civilization.

CHF: How do you decide what topics to pursue for each book?

HP: Something that interests me or catches my interest. For The Book on the Bookshelf I was sitting in my study one evening, thinking, What am I going to write about next? and I looked at the wall of books, the bookshelves. Usually you see books when you do that, but I saw the shelves that day. I saw them as little bridges. Why is it that we store books this way? That was the germ of the idea. There was enough interest there for me to pursue the idea. I didn’t think there necessarily was a book on it, but then I began to read—it was very interesting research, full of surprises. It turned out to be a pretty successful book. I get a lot of questions about the topics in that book.

And then another criterion is, Is there enough material to fill a book? Is there going to be an engaging story? I like to think of the books as telling a story of some kind, though maybe not a novelistic type of story. As long as it is engaging to me, I hope it will be engaging to others. I have abandoned a lot of ideas because they did not seem to go anywhere, but some just cry out to be pursued. With The Pencil, for example, early on in trying to feel my way around this subject I discovered that Henry David Thoreau had manufactured pencils and was innovative in helping his father in his pencil business, which was a cottage industry in Concord, Massachusetts. I knew that that alone made it a promising book. The question was, What else was going to be in the book? It turns out that the Thoreau business is a chapter in the book, and I open with an anecdote about Henry David. But once there was that connection to the general culture I began to think, What about the materials, what about the graphite of a pencil, what about the wood? It turns out to be very interesting—whether the graphite is pure or not, whether the wood has the right properties. This turned it into a book about engineering.

The Pencil has a very interesting story. I wanted to take a sabbatical and for that you have to have a project. I usually don’t know much about my books when I begin them, but in this case I had to know more if I was going to say I would like to write this book. I had to explain it. My first idea was that this was going to be a book about engineering and culture. My idea was to use a pencil as an introduction to a lot of different concepts—the pencil is clearly associated with creativity, with artists and architects and engineers. I would have a chapter where I would start off talking about the pencil as this tool of creativity, and I would get into how engineers are creative. That was the germ of the idea. My working title was “With a Pencil” and that is what I applied for fellowships with.

But I seldom think through the books that far. Usually after I finish a book or at least a good draft of one, then I make an outline and submit to a publisher. I cannot make an outline of a book beforehand because I deviate too much from my original ideas. It depends on where the material is going to take the subject.

RML: Your books are a perfect marriage of engineering and history. I can see why you have a joint appointment in civil engineering and in history. You are looking at engineering objects and at the same time tracing their history and considering cultural implications.

HP: Thank you.

RML: We promised we wouldn’t take more than an hour. One last question, Henry, and that is whether there is any comment or message you would like to deliver to the other members of the NAE who will be reading this column.

HP: I don’t want to presume to send a message to them. I really am so honored to be a member of the NAE, given the distinguished people that are members. I was blown away when I was elected and invited to sit on committees. I got to know some of the members and was just so overwhelmed and impressed with the variety of qualities they would bring to a discussion—their intelligence, knowledge, integrity, the depth of analysis they would engage in to make decisions about awards and other matters. I have never been involved with a group that has so impressed me. I hope I can live up to the standards that have been set by the members of the Academy.

RML: I think that is a given, Henry, I really do. This column focuses on how practicing engineers affect the culture of the country and you are a perfect model of that. I am just delighted that we have had this opportunity to spend an hour with you. Thanks again, Henry, very much.

CHF: Yes, indeed, Henry, thank you. What a pleasure.

HP: It has been good to talk with you, Ron and Cameron.

About the Author:Henry Petroski (NAE) is a professor of both civil engineering and history at Duke University and a prolific author. Photo by Catherine Petroski.