Buildings, roads, bridges are repeatedly repaired, replaced, and demolished. We seem to have the technology to make better materials; engineering sophistication to make things last; but not the foresight to put quality ahead of short-term cost considerations. The TV breaks, it is cheaper to toss it out and buy a new one. Plastic plumbing components are replacing copper products that are now so cheaply made that they have become undependable. This says something about the current state of engineering AND our "civilization".
Professor Petroski's point about learning from failure is an important one. A recent book, "Creating Innovators: The Making of Ypung People Who Will Change the World," makes a similar point. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the author, Tony Wagner, writes, "In most high school and college classes, failure is penalized. But without trial and error, there is no innovation." Professor Petroski puts that lesson in historical context when he describes how ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks built a body of engineering knowledge by learning from failure.
Henry, one comment you made really resonated with me. You mention that Vitruvius's book is still eminently readable. I find that all the time. It is interesting to go back to read source material (as opposed to contemporary commentaries) on any subhject and to see how much like those authors we are. Despite all the great innovations we have developed, we still think in similar ways. In some ways that seems suprising. I guess it should not.
A wile back I was in Germany and our hosts were showing us a Roman aqueduct that was still in operation. It is really a testament to their knowledge and skill. We build on that foundation and reap the benefits.
Linear guides are one of the most important components required for the design of automated or computer-controlled equipment. Aluminum profile extrusions, used for these guides, can enable designed-in functional features.
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