Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America
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If only Petroski The Pencil, ; The Evolution of Useful Things, had spared some of the detail and added more diagrams to illustrate basic principles and controversies. Indeed, civil engineering was the daughter of the Industrial Revolution, an empirical science evolved to meet the needs of rapid transport by rail and internal combustion engine. It was by no means certain that designs for longer and longer spans and higher and higher towers, using newfangled raw steel and concrete materials instead of masonry, would literally hold up.
And failures there were. Cantilevered bridges were out following the collapse of a bridge in Scotland; suspension bridges had to fight their way back to respectability after "Galloping Gertie" the Tacoma Narrows Bridgetorsioned itself to death in high wind. But it is the people Petroski cares about: the engineer-dreamers whose names, except perhaps for the Roeblings of Brooklyn Bridge fame, are unknown. They, their partners and rivals, the politicians, bankers, and public interest groups, the construction workers and the general public animate the tales that Petroski tells.
They are part of his ongoing crusade to celebrate engineersin this case a particularly ardent, outspoken, and ambitious lot who truly dreamed of spanning the world. To his credit, Petroski paints his heroes' flaws as well as their virtues. Had he more simply explained the flaws and virtues of the various bridge designs, he would have succeeded not only in honoring engineers but also the science of engineering.
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The newspaper itself is a thing of wonder for me, and I recall in some detail how we delivered it in the s, folding it into a tight package and flipping it from a bicycle. My bike, a Schwinn, consumed a lot of my time and attention as a teenager, and it is a kind of character in my memoir.
My family, friends, and teachers naturally also appear, but it is the attention to things as well as people that ties Paperboy to my other books. Like a lot of writers, I write books to try to understand better how the world and the things in it work. My first book, To Engineer Is Human , was prompted by nonengineer friends asking me why so many technological accidents and failures were occurring. If engineers knew what they were doing, why did bridges and buildings fall down?
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It was a question that I had often asked myself, and I had no easy answer. Since the question was a nontechnical one, I wrote my book in nontechnical language. I am pleased that engineers and nonengineers find the book readable and helpful in making sense of the world of things and the people who make things.
There is a lot more to the world of things than just their breaking and failing, of course, and that prompted me to write another book for the general reader. The Pencil is about how a very familiar and seemingly simple object is really something that combines complex technology with a rather interesting history. The story of the pencil as an object has so many social and cultural connections with the world that it makes a perfect vehicle for conveying the general nature of design, engineering, manufacturing, and technology. Pencils, like everything else, have changed over time, and I explored that idea further in The Evolution of Useful Things.
This book is about invention and inventors and how and why they continue to make new things out of old. In it, I describe inventors and engineers as critics of technology, fault-finders who can't leave things alone.
As an engineer, I am also interested in large things, and bridges are some of the largest things made. Engineers of Dreams is about the bridging of America, telling the stories of some of our greatest spans, including the George Washington, Golden Gate, Eads, and Mackinac bridges. It also tells the story of the engineers who designed and built these monumental structures, emphasizing that their personalities and the political and technical climate have a great deal to do with what bridges look like and how they work.
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