Duke University Alumni Magazine

Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering

By Henry Petroski. Knopf, 1998. 240 pages. $24.

hose familiar with Henry Petroski's other books for the general reader will find in this collection of magazine columns the same flashes of lively historical curiosity they loved in his earlier work, as well as occasional examples of pedestrian prose that threaten to overwhelm the demanding short format. In some cases, Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of civil engineering and professor of history, has happily expanded a piece beyond its original length to give scope to his penchant for diversions, connections, and follow-ups on the lives of engineers and their works. One remains grateful for his indefatigable curiosity.

Though he's not always a careful stylist, his delight in uncovering the inner workings of the world's big engineering projects is infectious and irresistible. No one can walk away from a single essay in this book without taking along at least one thought-providing tidbit: that "bugs" existed long before the apocryphal story about a moth in a mainframe computer, having been cited by Thomas Edison as a common term in the 1870s; that 2,400 U.S. patents were issued to women before 1888, including one for the first machine to manufacture paper bags; that brewery horses informed James Watts' eighteenth-century neologism, "horsepower"; that modern ships are still being designed to fit the 1914 Panama Canal; that the original Ferris Wheel carried 2,160 people at a time. Even when the pace of the prose becomes plodding, you are sure to encounter a startling fact or two, and those facts will lead you to a reflection, and that reflection will make you both set down the book for a moment and just as surely make you pick it up again later.

Most of these nineteen essays first appeared as columns in American Scientist, a bimonthly magazine for scientists and engineers--and thereby hangs a tale. A better subtitle might be "A Celebration and Defense of Engineering," which is to say that some essays have a burden, leaving one with the impression that engineers carry a chip on their collective shoulder because scientists don't consider them equals, Nobel Prize committees rarely reward their achievements, and so on. If at times we hear more than we would like about the rift between modern scientists and engineers, and recognize that other people's political battles underlie a few passages, we nevertheless forgive them as minor sins of commission in an otherwise highly entertaining and good-natured collection.

No technical knowledge is required. This kind of engineering book can be savored equally by poets and politicians, who may respectively enjoy running across the likes of Thoreau (who manufactured pencils, and did so very well) and a history of Robert's Rules of Order (the hobby of a military engineer whose real work involved freeing Galveston from sandbars).

Some essays grow out of a particular person or project--the Hoover Dam, whose name remained uncertain and a subject of bitter controversy for eleven years after its completion; the Chunnel, to all intents and purposes designed in 1870 and finally opened in 1994; the Great Eastern, the world's biggest steamboat, whose very launching was a project of epic proportions in which men died and careers were on the line. Others follow the ups and downs of a single career--George Steinmetz, the half-mythical electrical engineer who led General Electric to dominance eighty years before Jack Welch became a household name; James Nasmyth, a British polymath whose invention of giant steam hammers enabled the forging of gargantuan anchors and shafts for the ever larger ships being designed in the nineteenth century, and whose drawings of the moon attracted the attention of the Prince Consort at the 1851 Crystal Palace; Karl Terzaghi, the Prague-born engineer whose pioneering experiments in soil mechanics not only informed the attempt to build Chicago's subways but inspired two generations of buildings, dams, and bridge towers.

The more abstract essays are less apt to be burdened by a message but are equally fun. When we read "On the Backs of Envelopes," about creativity and the relationship between, say, designing a bridge and the zillion niggling details and calculations that will make it safe and functional, we cannot but delight in the author's delight, taking pleasure in our own childlike wonder at how things happen. Petroski liberally laces such accounts with examples from projects as diverse as the first bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis to that masterwork of the Victorian era, the Crystal Palace. He even reproduces Joseph Paxton's miserable, ink-smeared little sketch of the latter, as if to reassure us that even geniuses use the same leaky fountain pens we do, and scribble their greatest ideas on the same handy scraps we use for grocery lists. Always and always we return to the men and women behind the designs, eavesdropping on their diaries, probing into the lore of the trade, looking into their scrapbooks. He makes engineering accessible, funny, human.

There are inevitable infelicities that make one wish for a heavier editorial hand: We are five pages into the essay about Alfred Nobel's will before we learn what year he died; we are told that the best way to remember Steinmetz is through his own photos that reveal a "proud and playful genius"--yet we see three other photos, taken by somebody else, instead.

But these are quibbles. This joyful collection inspires awe.

--Paul Baerman

Baerman M.B.A. '90, who lives in Durham, falls into the camp of the poets.

Critical Essays on Reynolds Price
By James A. Schiff '81, editor. G.K. Hall & Co., 1998. 321 pages.
This comprehensive compilation of comments on the author and his works includes reviews, essays, and tributes to a writer Schiff calls "probably the finest living Southern novelist and, perhaps, the most significant Southern man of letters of the latter half of the twentieth century." Notable are reminiscences by such authors as Anne Tyler '61, James Dickey, Fred Chappell '61, Toni Morrison, and Stephen Spender.

A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763-1840

By Jon F. Sensbach Ph.D. '71. University of North Carolina Press, 1998. 368 pages. $17.95, paper.
Based on German church documents, including dozens of rare biographies of black Moravians, this book explores the fluidity of race in Revolutionary and nineteenth-century America, highlighting the struggle of African Americans to secure their fragile place in a culture unwilling to give them full human rights.

Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work

By Bryan Gilliam, editor. Duke University Press, 1997. 289 pages. $16.95, paper.
Despite what was once a tendency by musicologists to overlook or deny Strauss' importance, the essays in this volume firmly place the German composer among the most influential composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Originally published by Duke Press in 1992, this book examines Strauss' life and work from a number of approaches during various periods of his long career. Editor Gilliam is an associate professor of music at Duke.

Making Up Megaboy

By Virginia Walter. Graphics by Katrina Roeckelein'86. DK Publishing, Inc., 1998. $16.95 cloth.
On his thirteenth birthday, Robbie Jones takes his father's handgun, rides his bike into town, and kills an elderly Korean shopkeeper. Everyone is shocked, and everyone is looking for answers. But Robbie is not talking. The only clues may be hidden in the frames of his comic strip Megaboy, the superhero he created. The story is written in the format of news broadcasts, headlines, and interviews, and is supplemented with Roeckelein's Macintosh-manipulated graphics.

Human Freedom, Christian Righteousness: Philip Melanchthon's Exegetical Dispute with Erasmus of Rotterdam

By Timothy J. Wengert Ph.D. '84. Oxford University Press, 1998. 239 pages. $40, cloth.
This book argues the thesis that Melanchthon, so often pictured as hopelessly caught in the middle between Erasmus and Luther, and more "Erasmian" than Lutheran in his thought, was, at least in his theological methods and views, not so at all, but, in fact, sharply opposed to Erasmus. Wengert is a professor of the history of Christianity at The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

This Gifted Age: Science and Technology at the Millennium
By John H. Gibbons Ph.D. '54. Springer-Verlag, 1997. 346 pages.
The former director of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, who recently retired as assistant for science and technology to President Bill Clinton, explores one of the central issues of our time: the impact of government policy on scientific and technological advancement. The book comprises Gibbons' non-technical writing from the last three decades and includes a foreword by Vice President Al Gore.

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