Henry Petroski

Henry Petroski

Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering

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.

Appointments and Affiliations

  • Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering
  • Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Professor in the Department of History

Contact Information

  • Office Location: 133 Engineering Bldg, Durham, NC 27708
  • Office Phone: (919) 660-5203
  • Email Address: petroski@duke.edu


  • Ph.D. University of Illinois -- Urbana-Champaign, 1968
  • M.S. University of Illinois, 1964
  • B.S.M.E. Manhattan College, 1963

Research Interests

Structural engineering; design; interrelationship between success and failure in design; nature of invention; history of engineering and technology.


Failure Analysis
History, Engineering
Structural Engineering

Awards, Honors, and Distinctions

  • Honorary Doctor of Science. McGill University. 2016
  • John P. McGovern Award for Science. Cosmos Club Foundation. 2014
  • Honorary Doctor of Engineering. Missouri University of Science and Technology. 2011
  • Distinguished Member. American Society of Civil Engineers. 2008
  • Fellow. American Society of Mechanical Engineers. 2006
  • Member. American Philosophical Society. 2006
  • Washington Award. Western Society of Engineers. 2006
  • Fellow. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2003
  • Honorary Doctor of Pedagogy. Manhattan College. 2003
  • Fellow. Institution of Engineers of Ireland. 2000
  • Honorary Doctor of Science. Valparaiso University. 1999
  • Eminent Speaker, Structural College. Institution of Engineers, Australia. 1998
  • Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Trinity College (Hartford, Conn.). 1997
  • Member. National Academy of Engineering. 1997
  • Civil Engineering History and Heritage Award. American Society of Civil Engineers. 1993
  • Ralph Coats Roe Medal. American Society of Mechanical Engineers. 1991
  • Fellowship. John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. 1990
  • Honorary Doctor of Science. Clarkson University. 1990
  • Fellow. National Humanities Center. 1987

Courses Taught

  • EGR 89S: First-Year Seminar
  • EGR 120L: Introduction to Structural Engineering

In the News

Representative Publications

  • Petroski, H, The road ahead, American scientist, vol 104 no. 4 (2016), pp. 236-241 [abs].
  • Petroski, H, How paperweights emerged from the desk of necessity, American scientist, vol 104 no. 4 (2016), pp. 216-219 [abs].
  • Petroski, H, The Bridge that United Two Cities, American scientist, vol 104 no. 1 (2016), pp. 20-20 [10.1511/2016.118.20] [abs].
  • Petroski, H, Words instead of dollars, Enr -New York-, vol 274 no. 43 (2015) [abs].
  • Abou-Ras, D; Edoff, M; Minemoto, T; Mitzi, D; Romeo, A, Preface of E-MRS 2014 symposium A, Thin Solid Films, vol 582 (2015), pp. 1-1 [10.1016/j.tsf.2015.01.001] [abs].

Additional Information

Honors and Awards (See also Distinguished Lectures, below)
  • John P. McGovern Award in Science, Cosmos Club Foundation (2014)
  • G. Brooks Earnest Lecture Award, Cleveland Section, American Society of Civil Engineers (2012)
  • Barnett-Uzgiris Product Safety Design Award, American Society of Mechanical Engineers (2012)
  • Honorary Doctor of Engineering Degree, Missouri University of Science and Technology (2011)
  • Norm Augustine Award, American Association of Engineering Societies (2009)
  • Honorary Member, Polonia Technica (2009)
  • Distinguished Member, American Society of Civil Engineers (2008)
  • Forensic Engineer of the Year, ASCE Technical Council on Forensic Engineering (2008)
  • Charles S. Barrett Silver Medal, American Society for Materials International, Rocky Mountain Chapter (2008)
  • Journalism Award, Society for American Military Engineers, Northern Virginia Post (2007)
  • Distinguished Service Award, Duke Univeristy Engineering Alumni Association (2007)
  • Fellow, American Society of Mechanical Engineers (2007)
  • Member, American Philosophical Society (elected 2006)
  • Washington Award, Western Society of Engineers (2006)
  • Presidential Appointment, U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (2004)
  • Tau Beta Pi (2003)
  • Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (elected 2003)
  • Honarary Doctor of Pedagogy Degree, Manhattan College (2003)
  • Honorary Member, The Moles (2002)
  • Fellow, The Institution of Engineers of Ireland (2000)
  • Honorary Doctor of Science degree, Valparaiso University (1999)
  • Eminent Speaker, Institution of Engineers, Australia, Structural College (1998)
  • Tetelman Fellow, Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University (1998)
  • Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, Trinity College (Hartford, Conn.) (1997)
  • Member, National Academy of Engineering (elected 1997)
  • Orthogonal Medal, Graphic Communications Faculty, North Carolina State University (1996)
  • Fellow, American Society of Civil Engineers (1996)
  • Alumni Honor Award for Distinguished Service in Engineering, College of Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1994)
  • Civil Engineering History and Heritage Award, American Society of Civil Engineers (1993)
  • Outstanding Graduate, School of Engineering Centennial Award, Manhattan College (1992)
  • National Lecturer, Sigma Xi (1991-93)
  • Ralph Coats Roe Medal, American Society of Mechanical Engineers (1991)
  • Fellow, John Simon Guggenheim Foundation (1990-91)
  • Honorary Doctor of Science degree, Clarkson University (1990)
  • Fellow, National Endowment for the Humanities (1987-88)
  • Fellow, National Humanities Center (1987-88)
  • Illinois Arts Council Literary Award (1976)
  • Sigma Xi (Illinois Chapter) Graduate Student Paper Award (1968)
  • Sigma Xi, Member (1968)
  • Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Teaching Fellowship (1963-64)
  • see also distinguished lectures
Distinguished Lectures (Recent and Scheduled)
  • 2016:
  • Oregon State University, Kiewit Lecture
  • 2015:
  • Oskar von Miller Forum, Munich, Germany, keynote lecture
  • North Carolina State University, Zia Lecture
  • 2014:
  • Cosmos Club, John P. McGovern Lecture
  • Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY, spring faculty convocation speech
  • Florida Atlantic University, School of Engineering and Computer Science, distinguished lecture
  • Texas A&M University, Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, Bovay Lecture
  • Structural Engineers Association of North Carolina, annual meeting keynote
  • Asheville School, Founders Day convocation speech
  • Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, evening public lecture
  • 2013:
  • Ohio University, Russ College of Engineering and Technology, Stocker Lecture
  • Khalifa University, Distinguished Speaker
  • 2012:
  • University of Alabama, College of Engineering Research Center Directors' Lecture
  • Central Arkansas Library System, Fred K. Darragh Jr. Distinguished Lecture
  • NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Engineering Colloquium
  • Princeton University, Stafford Little Lecture
  • Northwestern University, Distinguished Annual Lecture in Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • G. Brooks Earnest Award Lecture, Cleveland Section, American Society of Civil Engineers
  • Penn State University, Charles W. Mann Jr. Lecture in the Book Arts
  • Oakland University, William G. Hammerlee Lecture
  • Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Semans Lecture
  • 2011:
  • University of Iceland, Centennial Celebrations Honorary Speaker
  • NASA Johnson Space Center, series of three lectures
  • Commencement address, Missouri University of Science and Technology
  • Rice University, Scientia Institute, concluding lecture in "Failure!" seminar series
  • Stueck Distinguished Lecture, Missouri University of Science and Technology
  • 2010:
  • Distinguished University Lecture, Case Western Reserve University
  • NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Engineering Colloquium
  • Booz Allen Hamilton Distinguished Colloquium, University of Maryland
  • 2009:
  • Meliora Weekend Symposium Lecture, University of Rochester
  • HearIn Lecture, Mississippi State University
  • Freshman Engineering Academy Lecture, University of Southern California
  • 62nd Annual Meeting of the U.S. National Committee on Theoretical and Applied Mechanics
  • Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, distinguished lecture
  • NASA Johnson Space Center, three lectures
  • IEEE Conference on the History of Technical Societies, banquet address
  • 2000-2008:
  • Vecellio Distinguished Lecture, Virginia Tech
  • Charles S. Barrett Silver Medal Lecture, American Society of Metals, Rocky Mountain Chapter
  • Trent Dames Lecture, Huntington Library
  • Ralph & Betty George Engineering Ethics Lecture, University of Alaska, Anchorage
  • Alfred H. Samborn Distinguished Lecture, University of Toledo
  • Hopkins Lecture, University of Canterbury and Institution of Professional Engineeers New Zealand
  • Linus Pauling Memorial Lecture, Insitute of Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Portland, Oregon
  • Dean's Distinguished Lecture, Henry Samueli School of Engineeering, University of California, Irvine
  • Washington Award Lecture, Chicago Engineers Week
  • Victor Wouk Lecture, California Institute of Technology
  • Chancellor's Lecture, Vanderbilt University
  • Arnold D. Kerr Lecture in Engineering Mechanics and Design, University of Delaware
  • Toyota Lecture, Art Center College of Design
  • Annual Fatigue Lecture, American Society for Testing and Materials, Committee on Fatigue and Fracture
  • Great Conversations Lecture, University of Minnesota
  • Abba G. Lichtenstein Distinguished Lecture, Ohio State University
  • Rosamond Gifford Lecture, Onondaga County Public Library, New York
  • Voices of Discovery Lecture, Elon University
  • Commencement Address, Harvey Mudd College
  • Lewis Clark Vanuxem Lectures, Princeton University
  • Bock Memorial Lecture, U.S. Naval Academy
  • Paul W. Horn Professors Lecture, Texas Tech Univeristy
  • H. O Croft Lecture, University of Missouri
  • Commencement Address, Manhattan College
  • Distinguished Speakers Seminar, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Herman Schneider Centennial Lecture, University of Cincinnati
  • Tang Lecture, University of Massachusetts
  • Distinguished Lecture, MIT Lincoln Laboratory
  • Knight Distinguished Visitor Lecture, University of Manitoba
  • David H. Liu Memorial Lecture in Design, Stanford University
  • McLaughlin Lecture, Institution of Engineers of Ireland
  • Gilbert A. Cam Lecture, New York Public Library
  • Rudin/Schaffner Lecture, Cooper Union
Keynote Addresses (Recent)
  • Structural Engineers Association of North Carolina, annual meeting keynote (2014)
  • Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY), spring faculty convocation keynote (2014)
  • Third Annual Sessions, Society of Structural Engineers, Sri Lanka, keynote (2013)
  • Johns Hopkins University, Whiting School of Engineering, Engineering for Professionals, annual faculty meeting keynote (2013)
  • Sigma Xi, North Carolina State University Chapter, initiation and awards ceremony keynote (2013)
  • Innovation in Mind conference, University of Lund, Sweden, keynote (2012)
  • XXV Conference on Structural Failure, Miedzyzdroje, Poland, opening keynote (2011)
  • ReVisioning Value Conference, Portland, Oregon (2011)
  • American Society of Civil Engineers, North Carolina Section (2010)
  • Engineering Week, Temple University (2010)
  • Tech Plus Forum, Seoul, South Korea (2009)
  • Forensic Engineering Congress (2009)
  • Bioenergy Engineering Conference (2009), opening keynote
  • 54th Annual Structural Engineering Conference (2009), University of Kansas, opening keynote
  • Society for Imaging Informatics in Medicine, Annual Scientific Meeting, SIIM2009
  • Upper Midwest Honors Confernece (2008)
  • Annual Celebration of Excellence by Students, University of Texas at Arlington (2008)
  • International Conference on Design Education, ConnectED2007, Syndey, Australia
  • Waterpower XV Conference, Chattanooga, Tennessee (2007)
  • U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Science and Technology, Chantilly, Virginia (2007)
  • Design History Society, annual conference, Delft, The Netherlands (2006)
  • International History Symposium, Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, Toronto (2005)
  • Engineering Human Performance Workshop, Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, Warrenville, Illinois (2005)
  • Third New York Bridge Conference, New York City (2005)
  • Children's Engineering Convention, Williamsburg, Virginia (2003)
  • First National Covered Bridge Conference, Burlington, Vermont (2003)
  • American Society for Engineering Education, Regional Conference, West Point, New York (2002)
  • American Council of Engineering Companies, annual meeting, Las Vegas, Nevada (2002)
  • Society for Industrial Archaeology, annual meeting, Brooklyn, New York (2002)
  • Object-Oriented Programming, Systmes, Languages, and Applications Conference, OOPSLA 2001, Tampa Bay, Florida
  • Seventh Historic Bridge Conference, Cleveland, Ohio (2001)
  • American Society of Civil Engineers, North Carolina Section, annual meeting (2001)
  • Engineering Design Exposition, University of Idaho (2001)
  • Idaho Technology and Humanity Symposium (2001)
  • Gordon Conference on Theoretical Foundations of Product Design and Manufacturing, Plymouth State College, New Hampshire (2000)
Professional and Service Activities (current)
  • U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, Member (2004-2012)
  • National Academies 2009 Communications Awards Selection Committee, Member
  • American Society of Civil Engineers, History and Heritage Committee, Chairman
  • National Academy of Engineering, Member
  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fellow
  • American Philosophical Society, Member
  • American Society of Civil Engineers, Distinguished Member
  • Institution of Engineers of Ireland, Fellow
  • The Moles, Honorary Member
  • American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Fellow
  • American Society for Engineering Education, Member
  • Society for Industrial Archaeology, Member
  • Society for the History of Technology, Member
  • Tau Beta Pi, Member
  • Sigma Xi, Member