Henry Petroski

Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering

External address: 
133 Engineering Bldg, Durham, NC 27708
Internal office address: 
Box 90287, Durham, NC 27708-0287
(919) 660-5203


Henry Petroski received his bachelor's degree from Manhattan College and his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Before coming to Duke in 1980, he had taught at the University of Illinois and the University of Texas at Austin and was a group leader at Argonne National Laboratory, where he was responsible for research and development efforts in fracture mechanics. He is a professional engineer registered in Texas, and a chartered engineer registered in Ireland. At Duke, he has a secondary appointment as a professor of history. From 2004 through 2012 he held a Presidential appointment as a member of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board.

Professor Petroski's current research activity focuses on the interrelationship between success and failure in design. He also has a strong interest in the nature of invention and in the history of technology. His research has been sponsored by the Corps of Engineers, the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and other organizations. He has published, in addition to nineteen books and hundreds of articles in newspapers, magazines, and trade journals, over seventy-five refereed journal articles in such places as International Journal of Fracture, Engineering Fracture Mechanics, Journal of Applied Mechanics, Structural Safety, and Research in Engineering Design.

Professor Petroski is author of the book, To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (1985), and is the writer and presenter of the 1987 BBC-television documentary, "To Engineer Is Human," which has been broadcast on PBS. He is also the author of 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), Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering (1997), The Book on the Bookshelf (1999), Paperboy: Confessions of a Future engineer (2002), Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design (2003), Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering (2004), 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),  To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure (2012), The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors: A Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship (2014), and The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure (2016). He writes the engineering column for American Scientist and a column on the profession for ASEE Prism. He also lectures widely and is interviewed frequently on radio and television.

Among his honors are a Guggenheim Fellowship (1990-1991); honorary degrees from Clarkson University (1990), Trinity College (1997), Valparaiso University (1999), Manhattan College (2003), Missouri University of Science and Technology (2011), and McGill University (2016); the Ralph Coats Roe Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (1991), the Civil Engineering History and Heritage Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers (1993), the Washington Award from the Western Society of Engineers (2006), the John P. McGovern Award for Science from the Cosmos Club Foundation (2014), among others. He is the recipient of a Centennial Award as an Outstanding Engineering Graduate of Manhattan College (1992) and an Alumni Award for Distinguished Service from the College of Engineering of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1994). Professor Petroski is a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Engineers of Ireland, and is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

Education & Training

  • Ph.D., University of Illinois -- Urbana-Champaign 1968

  • M.S., University of Illinois 1964

  • B.S.M.E., Manhattan College 1963

(96-0915) Engineering Models for Everyday Things awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 1997 to 2000

Soil Mechanics Laboratory Equipment awarded by Lord Foundation of North Carolina (Principal Investigator). 1998 to 1999

(97-0954) Renovation of Soil Mechanics Laboratory awarded by Lord Foundation of North Carolina (Principal Investigator). 1997 to 1998

(96-1004) Renovation of Civil & Environmental Engineering Basement Area awarded by Lord Foundation of North Carolina (Principal Investigator). 1996

(95-0802) Stress Analysis of a Paper Clip awarded by Lord Foundation of North Carolina (Principal Investigator). 1995 to 1996

(92-0088) Introducing Engineering Through Case Histories awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 1992 to 1994

(91-0747) Cautionary Paradigms for Engineering Design awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 1990 to 1992

(89-0258) Paradigms for Engineering Design- Exploratory Research awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 1989 to 1990

Abou-Ras, D, Edoff, M, Minemoto, T, Mitzi, D, and Romeo, A. "Preface of E-MRS 2014 symposium A." Thin Solid Films 582 (May 2015): 1-1. Full Text

Petroski, H. "Second life of a tied-arch bridge." American Scientist 103, no. 2 (January 1, 2015): 94-97.

Petroski, H. "Can an engineer appreciate art?." American Scientist 103, no. 1 (January 1, 2015): 14-17.

Petroski, H. "An incubator for cooperation across the disciplines." American Scientist 103, no. 5 (January 1, 2015): 318-321.

Petroski, H. "Rise and Fall of the Pocket Protector." American Scientist 102, no. 3 (2014): 182-182. Full Text

Petroski, H. "The Story of Two Houses." American Scientist 102, no. 4 (2014): 258-258. Full Text

Petroski, H. "Aspirants, Apprentices, and Student Engineers." American Scientist 102, no. 5 (2014): 334-334. Full Text

Petroski, H. "Anonymous design." American Scientist 102, no. 6 (January 1, 2014): 414-417.

Petroski, H. "In Memory of the Offprint." American Scientist 102, no. 1 (2014): 14-14. Full Text

Petroski, H. "Impossible Points, Erroneous Walks." American Scientist 102, no. 2 (2014): 102-102. Full Text