Henry Petroski, Ph.D., P.E., Dist.M.ASCE, NAE, an Aleksandar S. Vesic professor of civil engineering and professor of history at Duke University, as well as a well-known author of influential books on the nature of engineering, and in particular on why some engineering designs fail, received the 2014 John P. McGovern Award for Science from the Cosmos Club Foundation in Washington, D.C. The John P. McGovern Foundation Trustees annually select an awardee in the areas of science, literature, arts, and humanities whose endeavors have clearly distinguished them as leaders in their spheres of activity. Petroski, an ASCE Distinguished Member from the Class of 2008, will be presented a medal commemorating his selection, and also deliver a lecture at the Cosmos Club in an area of his expertise.
A distinguished author, Petroski’s landmark book, To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, was published in 1985 and then developed into a BBC television documentary first broadcast in 1987. Petroski has continued to write and lecture on the topics of success and failure, drawing upon historic and contemporary case studies to illustrate his thesis about the central role of failure in the engineering design process. His celebrated books include The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (1990), The Evolution of Useful Things (1992), Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering (1994), Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America (1995), Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing (1996), The Book on the Bookshelf (1999), Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer (2002), Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design (2003), Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design (2006), The Toothpick: Technology and Culture (2007), The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems (2010), An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession (2011), and To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure (2012). In addition, he writes an engineering column for American Scientist, a column on the profession for ASEE Prism (American Society for Engineering Education), and occasionally for the New York Times.
His books, articles, and lectures have earned Petroski a broad range of recognition, including 5 honorary degrees – from Clarkson University (1990), Trinity College (1997), Valparaiso University (1999), Manhattan College (2003), and Missouri University of Science and Technology (2011) – and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1990-1991). Among his other honors are the Washington Award from the Western Society of Engineers, the Ralph Coats Roe Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Civil Engineering History and Heritage Award from ASCE. He also the recipient of a Centennial Award as an Outstanding Engineering Graduate of Manhattan College and an Alumni Award for Distinguished Service from the College of Engineering of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
A graduate of Manhattan College with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, both his master’s and doctoral degrees are in theoretical and applied mechanics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; he has also taught at the University of Illinois and at the University of Texas at Austin.
In 1975 Petroski joined the staff of Argonne National Laboratory to start up and head a new group in fracture mechanics for the Reactor Analysis and Safety Division. Although the focus of his work at Argonne was on problems relating to the development of liquid-metal fast breeder reactors, while at the laboratory he developed a broad interest in failure analysis and began to write about issues in technology and society for such publications as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review and the New York Times. He moved to Duke University in 1980 in order to be able to devote more time to writing longer articles and books on engineering and design.