Understanding Failure

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Henry Petroski is interested in engineering when it succeeds, but more so when it fails.

A distinguished author and professor of both civil engineering and history, Petroski has authored 19 books and written hundreds of articles on the subject of engineering for newspapers, trade journals, and magazines. His books can often be found at the top of engineering ‘must read’ lists.

In this episode of Create the Future, we speak with Petroski about the importance of failure in successful engineering and discuss what we can learn from previous mistakes. We unpack the differences between scientists and engineers, explore how writing can help solve complex design problems, and hear why the best students are often those who can think outside the box.

New episodes of ‘Create the Future: An Engineering Podcast’ every other Tuesday


About the guest

Professor Henry Petroski is an American engineer, historian, and author specialising in failure analysis.

Petroski received his bachelor's degree from Manhattan College and his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Before teaching at Duke University, he held roles at the University of Illinois, the University of Texas at Austin, and was group leader of fracture mechanics R&D at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Among other positions, Petroski is a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and an elected member of U.S. National Academy of Engineering and American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


  • “I’ve advocated, especially with regard to engineering education, that we should be teaching our students about the history of engineering, which necessarily includes failures.”
  • “Very seldom is any engineering product designed to be so on the verge that if a fly lands on a bridge it's going to collapse. That is just not done in engineering.”
  • “If you want to write about engineering, you've got to know two things… you've got to know writing, and you've got to know engineering.”
  • “I did discover in the process of writing it that I think engineering is all related to failure. Successful engineering is when engineers properly anticipate what could go wrong with their system that they're designing. I found that a lot of practicing engineers agree with that.”
  • On engineering students thinking outside the box: “Thinking that a great transcript with all top grades is the best. I disagree with that.”
  • "I do my best thinking when I'm writing. If I try to write something out, I can see how it's not clear if one sentence doesn't follow from another, or one paragraph or another. I decided, I would try my hand at writing a book to explain ‘what is engineering.”

Photo by mahdis mousavi on Unsplash

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