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Book Review / Nonfiction

From the Chunnel to the Ferris Wheel

REMAKING THE WORLD, Adventures in Engineering, by Henry Petroski,Alfred A. Knopf, $24, 240 pages

January 30, 1998|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The art of engineering is a ubiquitous aspect of modern life, but it is one of the least understood. People take it for granted: Few think about why bridges don't fall down. And engineers are often too unwilling, or unable, to talk about their calling.

Henry Petroski, chairman of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University, is a striking exception. He has an inquisitive mind, and he is a fine writer. He is the author of seven books on engineering, including an inquiry into history and technology, "The Pencil."

"Remaking the World" is a collection of essays on engineers, their problems and their projects. (One intriguing essay is on the 19th century Army engineer Henry Martyn Robert, who helped establish the port at Galveston, Texas, and also wrote the bible of parliamentary procedure for citizen's groups, "Robert's Rules of Order.")

Petroski's pieces are drawn from his columns in the American Scientist, the bimonthly publication of Sigma Xi, the honorary society for scientists and engineers. Petroski's great theme is "the relationship of the works of engineers to society."

"Engineering projects have always been embedded in a social and cultural context that demanded careful attention to detail," he writes. He cites the pyramids of Egypt, gothic cathedrals, the iron bridges and the crystal palaces of the 19th century.

And the Ferris Wheel. Gustave Eiffel had erected his impressive tower of riveted wrought iron for the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, commemorating the French Revolution on its 100th anniversary. Chicago wanted an engineering achievement just as astonishing to mark the World's Columbian Exposition in its celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing in America.

The great Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, in charge of this exposition, put the word out about what he wanted, but "the engineers were giving him only towers," Petroski writes. Irritated, Burnham excoriated the engineers at a banquet in 1891 "for not having met the expectations of the people." One of his auditors was George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., founder of a firm that tested iron and steel.

Petroski quotes Ferris: "It was . . . down at a Chicago chop house, that I hit on the idea. . . . I would build a wheel, a monster. I got some paper and began sketching it out. . . . Before the dinner was over, I had sketched out almost the entire detail, and my plan has never varied an item from that day."

At 250 feet in diameter, the Ferris Wheel at the expo remains one of the largest ever built. It stood on the fair's Midway Plaisance, "the concession and amusement area of the fair that gave its name to midways at all subsequent fairs," Petroski adds in a detail typical of his charming historical disquisitions.

History, and not just its details, is an integral part of Petroski's outlook on engineering. He discusses at length and illuminatingly the embarrassing division between engineering and "pure science" that developed in the 19th century. One result was that the Swedish government, in putting Alfred Nobel's will into effect, created no prize for engineering, though Nobel himself was primarily an engineer.

Petroski is concerned, as all engineers must be, not only with the efficacy but also the safety of things built. One of his chapters is called "Good Drawings and Bad Dreams." In it he quotes Herbert Hoover on the engineer's lot: "If his works do not work, he is damned. That is the phantasmagoria that haunts his nights and dogs his days. He comes from the job at the end of the day resolved to calculate it again. He wakes in the night in a cold sweat and puts something on paper that looks silly in the morning. All day he shivers at the thought of the bugs which will inevitably appear to jolt its smooth consummation."

From the Great Eastern, an immense iron ship built in the 19th century, to the Panama Canal; from the Golden Gate Bridge to Hoover Dam; from the Challenger disaster to the Chunnel between France and England and the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, Petroski takes us on a lively tour of engineers, their creations and their necessary turns of mind.

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