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Feature

A black-and-white photo of Henry Petroski on stage.

Henry Petroski, known as America's poet laureate of technology, has authored 11 books on the history and design of everyday objects.

Design of everyday life

By Pauline Oo

Published on March 15, 2005

Paperback or hardcover books will, most likely, never go away. Newspapers, on the other hand, will--in the not too distant future--cease to exist. And their demise is coming at the hands of the Internet, says Henry Petroski, the guest expert at last Wednesday's "Great Conversations: Design in Everyday Life."

During his 40-minute conversation with University Librarian Wendy Pradt Lougee, Petroski shared personal observations and anecdotes about things that have become synonymous with everyday life and are always, shifting, changing, adapting, or eventually disappearing.

The death of the newspaper, for example, has already begun.

Far more newspaper publishers today have or are producing virtual daily and weekly versions, says Petroski, a civil engineering and history professor at Duke University, and far more people are reading about what's happening in their city and around the world on the Internet.

"Every time I'm at the airport, I'll see other travelers busy on their laptops, cell phones, or Blackberries, but once they get on the plane, they'll turn off these high-tech gadgets and take out a real, traditional book," says Petroski. "I don't think the book, the classical artifact as we know it, will disappear... a real book has tangible qualities--a texture, smell, and look--that make it different from the book sitting next to it on the shelf. The same can't be said for [reading a book] on the screen."

But newspapers make the shift to an electronic format easier than books do and, Petroski says, our increasing concern about the environment and the impact of newspapers on our forests and landfills is contributing to the shift to online newspapers.

"A Sunday copy of the Washington Post can weigh seven pounds--and that's a lot of paper we're using and we have to get rid off," he says. "I can see the newspaper actually becoming extinct, and today, newspapers are at the forefront of going digital."

According to Petroski, Americans are becoming increasingly design conscious. "Product design is an invention of the 1930s. That was the time when we streamlined cars and pencil sharpeners, and that was the beginning of the consciousness of what we today call design, " says Petroski.

Petroski, the author of 11 books exploring the history and design of everyday objects, says local culture and current conditions dictate how something is designed, shaped, or built despite increasing globalization.

Petroski's Top 3

When asked to name the most important inventions of his lifetime, Petroski mentioned the following, which he says have greatly changed the way he lives his life and does his work.

* Eyeglasses with lightweight lenses--because they keep their shape and don't slip down his nose or break.

* The computer. "I wouldn't have produced the books that I have without it; how all that information can fit in a little disk seems magic."

* Interlibrary loans, through which he conducts a lot of his research. "A lot of information on the Internet is simply wrong because it doesn't go through [the fact-checking and rigorous editing] it went through before at places like the New York Times and The New Yorker."

"For example, the once tallest building in the world, the Petronas Tower in Malaysia, involved American engineers who were used to building tall buildings," says the professional engineer, who is registered in both Texas and Ireland. "But concrete was used instead of steel in the Petronas Tower because [Malaysia doesn't] have a steel industry." Using traditional or local material helps revitalize an economy, he adds.

Petroski says engineers design buildings the best they can at the time and always in good faith. With the World Trade Center, it's only in hindsight that we argue that the twin towers could have been better built. "[The World Trade Center] was primarily built in the 1960s, when terrorism was not on the radar screen," he explains. "There were anticipations [by the engineers] of how it could fail, and [one scenario was that] a plane might get lost in the fog and crash into it--and that actually happened when a blimp crashed into the Empire State Building in the 1940s. If back then we knew that planes would be bigger than we can imagine, carry more fuel than we thought possible, and carry crazed terrorists that would deliberately crash into the buildings... But we didn't. You have to understand the [social] conditions in which [the World Trade Center] was built."

There is no perfect design, says Petroski, because we--non-perfect humans--create every object or service, and moreover, every person who uses the object or service is different in his or her preferences. Cup holders, toothbrushes, doorknobs, light switches, paper bags, duct tape--ubiquitous as they are--are still works in progress. "That's why design is so interesting," he says. "There is never a single solution to [a problem]," he says. "That's why we've invented so many things."

The Great Conversations lecture series is organized by the College of Continuing Education. To close the 2004-05 season, U history professor Allen Isaacman and former first lady of Mozambique Graca Machel will chat about "The Struggle and Hope for Southern Africa" on Tuesday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m. on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis. For tickets, see www.cce.umn.edu.

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