Petroski: Success Through Failure
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Henry Petroski. Success Through Failure : The Paradox of Design. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2006. xii + 235 pages.
Henry Petroski has been ardent in promoting the idea that a healthy relationship with failure is vital to engineering success. He believes that hubris is the root cuase of engineering faliure. Consider his example concerning the US Space Shuttle, where he describes managers' response to a sequence of little failures as "confirming" success rather than as harbingers of castastrophe.
As a sample of Petroski's style, here he is examining the ambiguity between success and failure in engineering, how failure is a complex concept and may be a matter of perception [pp. 103--104]:
The telegraph had its limitations, among them being the failure of individuals not versed in Morse code to be able to communicate directly with each other. Alexander Graham Bell's invention answered that challenge by allowing uncoded voices to be carried over unlimited distances, as long as they were connected by telephone wires. But the telephone too had its failings, chief among them being the very limitation shared by the telegraph: the need for wires. The development of wireless communication thus became the next goal, and it was made practical around the turn of the [twentieth] century by, among others, Guglielmo Marconi. Since the "wireless," as the name suggests, was designed to replace the telegraph, it was perceived at first to be a failure in that it did not just carry signals point to point but broadcast them so that anyone with the proper receiving equipment could listen in on what were intended to be private communications. It took a while before this failing was seen as an advantage, but in a different context. Ships at sea could broadcast calls for help, as the Titanic tried to do. (Unfortunately, the nearest potential recipients of her distress calls had turned their wireless sets off for the night, not having yet come to recognize the full potential of the new technology.) It was not until after World War I that the advantage of broadcasting programs to what came to be called radios was fully realized and exploited.
-- Notes by JNS