“Virtually all urban sensual experience has been touched by human hands, and thus the vast majority of us experience the physical world, at least, as filtered through the process of design.” (Henry Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things, ix)
In high school, I stole a book from by brother’s bedroom which impacted my tastes in reading like few others have done. That book was Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf, and it built in me a fascination for the genre I call “the biography of things.” The question of how an author could uncover such fascinating history from a single object like a book drove me to learn from that relatively young age such arts as research and writing, and it has reserved in me a passion for the same. I’m no engineer and I’ve never invented anything worthwhile—and I would likely despise the patent process if I ever did—but learning the path of how objects I enjoy came to be is something I’ll always enjoy.
In this book, The Evolution of Useful Things, Petroski seeks to do exactly what his title suggests, to follow the adaptation process of everyday objects from their humblest roots to the forms we recognize today (or at least would have recognized in 1992). He writes: “The form of made things is always subject to change in response to their real or perceived shortcomings, their failures to function properly. This principle governs all invention, innovation, and ingenuity; it is what drive all inventors, innovators, and engineers.” (22) Whether it’s forks, beer cans, hammers, or safety pins, the evolutionary process has been strikingly similar for all: a thing is invented, many people use it, some get annoyed, and even fewer seek to do something about it. Those few are the inventors: “people,” according to Jacob Rainbow, “who not only curse, but who also start to think about what can be done to eliminate the bother.” (36)
I really enjoyed the illustrations in this book, drawings and photos from old patents and books on inventions that help the reader visualize the evolutionary process of different artifacts. While the book itself is a bit outdated—there may have been revisions since my copy, published in 1992—but the lessons Petroski shares and the artifacts he researches are really quite timeless. This book would greatly appeal to anyone with an inventor’s flare, engineering tendencies, or a broad taste in “the biography of things” as I have.
While far more verbose that the rest of his book tends to be, one of his concluding paragraphs sums up for the reader why such a study as “the evolution of useful things” even matters. I quote it here in its entirety:
“What ultimately mandates the fact of technological evolution may be as fundamentally ineffable as what mandates the fact of natural evolution. That is not to say that there is not some dynamic at work but, rather, to suggest that a kind of evolutionary process is inextricably involved with the processes of life and living. Technology and its ancillary artifacts are concomitants to human existence, and it behooves us to understand their nature as well as our own, flawed and imperfect as they necessarily may be. That understanding is most accessible at the microcosmic and mictrotemporal level, where one things flows from another as a child from a parent, and the understanding is most acute when it resolves the dilemma of the famous and the obscure, the great and the small, and accepted and the rejected, by explaining their genesis equally while at the same time explaining their divergence of achievement within a common context.” (243-244)