In the ever increasing push for longer bridges, taller buildings, bigger stadiums, and grander projects of all kinds, engineers face new challenges that redefine our sense of both aesthetics and functionality. Pushing the Limits describes two dozen adventures in engineering that provide a fresh look at the past, a unique view of the present, and a telling glimpse into the future of the discipline and how it affects our lives.
Henry Petroski tells the stories of significant and daring enterprises—some familiar, some virtually unknown, and some that are still only dreams—in their historical and technological contexts. Among the achievements are Philadelphia’s landmark Benjamin Franklin Bridge, London’s incomparable Tower Bridge, and China’s ambitious Three Gorges Dam project. But pushing the limits of technology does not come without risk. Petroski also chronicles great technological disasters, such as the 1928 failure of California’s St. Francis Dam, the 1999 tragedy of the Texas A&M Bonfire, and the September 11, 2001, collapse of New York’s World Trade Center towers. He deals with other calamities as well, such as the 1994 earthquake that struck Southern California and the embarrassingly wobbly Millennium Bridge in London, which had to be shut down only three days after it opened.
The breadth and depth of Petroski’s erudition and his passionate interest in the art of design and in building have earned him the title of America’s poet laureate of technology, and his exploration of the complexity of what goes into design continues to stretch the imagination.
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Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. The author of eleven previous books, he lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf, Engineers of Dreams, The Evolution of Useful Things, Paperboy, Remaking the World, Small Things Considered, and To Engineer Is Human are available in Vintage paperback.
Art in Iron and Steel
Works of engineering and technology are sometimes viewed as the antitheses of art and humanity. Think of the connotations of assembly lines, robots, and computers. Any positive values there might be in such creations of the mind and human industry can be overwhelmed by the associated negative images of repetitive, stressful, and threatened jobs. Such images fuel the arguments of critics of technology even as they may drive powerful cars and use the Internet to protest what they see as the artless and dehumanizing aspects of living in an industrialized and digitized society. At the same time, landmark megastructures such as the Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges are almost universally hailed as majestic human achievements as well as great engineering monuments that have come to embody the spirits of their respective cities. The relationship between art and engineering has seldom been easy or consistent.
Arguably, the assembly-line process associated with Henry Ford made workers tools of the system, but Ford also wanted to produce automobiles that were affordable to working people, and he paid his own workers sufficiently well that they could save to buy the cars they made. The human worker may have appeared to be but a cog in the wheel of industry, yet photographers could reveal the beauty of line and composition in a worker doing something as common as using a wrench to turn a bolt. When Ford's enormous River Rouge plant opened in 1927 to produce the Model A, the painter/photographer Charles Sheeler was chosen to photograph it. The world's largest car factory captured the imagination of Sheeler, who described it as the most thrilling subject he ever had to work with. The artist also composed oil paintings of the plant, giving them titles such as American Landscape and Classic Landscape.
Long before Sheeler, other artists, too, had seen the beauty and humanity in works of engineering and technology. This is perhaps no more evident than in Coalbrookdale, England, where iron, which was so important to the industrial revolution, was worked for centuries. Here, in the late eighteenth century, Abraham Darby III cast on the banks of the Severn River the large ribs that formed the world’s first iron bridge, a dramatic departure from the classic stone and timber bridges that dotted the countryside and were captured in numerous serene landscape paintings. The metal structure, simply but appropriately called Iron Bridge, still spans the river and still beckons engineers, artists, and tourists to gaze upon and walk across it, as if on a pilgrimage to a revered place.
At Coalbrookdale, the reflection of the ironwork in the water completes the semicircular structure to form a wide-open eye into the future that is now the past. One artist's bucolic depiction shows pedestrians and horsemen on the bridge, as if on a woodland trail. On one shore, a pair of well-dressed onlookers interrupt their stroll along the riverbank, perhaps to admire the bridge. On the other side of the gently flowing river, a lone man leads two mules beneath an arch that lets the towpath pass through the bridge's abutment. A single boatman paddles across the river in a tiny tub boat. He is in no rush because there is no towline to carry from one side of the bridge to the other. This is how Michael Rooker saw Iron Bridge in his 1792 painting. A colored engraving of the scene hangs in the nearby Coalbrookdale museum, along with countless other contemporary renderings of the bridge in its full glory and in its context, showing the iron structure not as a blight on the landscape but at the center of it. The surrounding area at the same time radiates out from the bridge and pales behind it.
In the nineteenth century, the railroads captured the imagination of artists, and the steam engine in the distance of a landscape became as much a part of it as the herd of cows in the foreground. The Impressionist Claude Monet painted man-made structures like railway stations (La Gare Saint-Lazare) and cathedrals (Rouen) as well as water lilies. Portrait painters such as Christian Schussele found subjects in engineers and inventors-and their inventions-as well as in the American founding fathers. By the twentieth century, engineering, technology, and industry were very well established as subjects for artists.
American-born Joseph Pennell illustrated many European travel articles and books, including-among the many with his wife, Elizabeth Robins Pennell-Over the Alps on a Bicycle. Pennell, who early in his career made drawings of buildings under construction and shrouded in scaffolding, returned to America late in life and recorded industrial activities during World War I. He is perhaps best known among engineers for his depiction of the Panama Canal as it neared completion and his etchings of the partially completed Hell Gate and Delaware River bridges.
Pennell has often been quoted as saying, "Great engineering is great art," a sentiment that he expressed repeatedly. He wrote of his contemporaries, "I understand nothing of engineering, but I know that engineers are the greatest architects and the most pictorial builders since the Greeks." Where some observers saw only utility, Pennell saw also beauty, if not in form then at least in scale. He felt he was not only rendering a concrete subject but also conveying through his drawings the impression that it made on him. Pennell called the sensation that he felt before a great construction project "The Wonder of Work." He saw engineering as a process. That process is memorialized in every completed dam, skyscraper, bridge, or other great achievement of engineering.
If Pennell experienced the wonder of work in the aggregate, Lewis Hine focused on the individuals who engaged in the work. Hine was trained as a sociologist but became best known as a photographer who exposed the exploitation of children. His early work documented immigrants passing through Ellis Island, along with the conditions in the New York tenements where they lived and the sweatshops where they worked. His depictions of child labor in the Carolinas brought to public attention how young children toiled for long hours amid dangerous machinery. Hine depicted American Red Cross relief efforts during World War I and, afterward, the burdens war placed on children. Upon returning to New York, he was given the opportunity to record the construction of the Empire State Building, which resulted in the striking photographs that have become such familiar images of daring and insouciance. He put his own life at risk to capture workers suspended on cables hundreds of feet in the air and sitting on a high girder eating lunch. To engineers today, one of the most striking features of these photos, published in 1932 in Men at Work, is the absence of safety lines and hard hats. However, perhaps more than anything, the photos evoke Pennell's "wonder of work" and inspire admiration for the bravery and skill that bring a great engineering project to completion.
Alfred Stieglitz, who intended to study engineering at Berlin Polytechnic, redirected his interests to photochemistry after he acquired a small camera, and while still a student he began to work to gain recognition for photography as an art form on a par with painting. His early work showed steady technical innovation, as he took photographs in snow, in rain, and at night. He is considered the father of modern photography as an art form. In addition to making a series of four hundred prints of his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, and also four hundred prints of cloud patterns related to emotions, Stieglitz captured with his camera memorable images of New York's Flatiron Building and other structures. (O'Keeffe herself, so well-known for her abstract floral forms and southwestern themes, painted views of the East River, dominated by rooftops and industrial smokestacks, and the Brooklyn Bridge that crossed that river.)
In the 1930s, Margaret Bourke-White, who established a reputation for photographing industrial sites, produced photo essays of Russia and the Soviet Union, and would go on to become the first official woman photojournalist to cover World War II. Some of her most widely known work was produced for Life. Her first assignment for the new publication was to photograph dams under construction in the northwest United States by the Public Works Administration, and she focused her efforts of the enormous (four-mile-long) Fort Peck Dam in northeastern Montana. Her famous portrait of the earthen dam's concrete spillway structure appeared on the cover of the inaugural issue of the magazine, dated November 23, 1936.
Edward Steichen, another pioneer in photography as an art form, was attracted to both the glamour of Hollywood (Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin were two of his subjects) and the squalor of the battlefield. He led the photography division of the Army Air Service in World War I, and headed the Navy photography unit in World War II. As director of the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art, he organized The Family of Man exhibition in 1955, a landmark fusion of art and humanity. Steichen also photographed the Flatiron Building.
Joseph Stella, known for painting abstract floral themes (aquatic life and jungle foliage), returned throughout his life to the subject of the Brooklyn Bridge and often abstracted New York City in his paintings. The East River and Brooklyn Bridge also captured the imaginations of poets. In his "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Walt Whitman wrote about the river scene that so many commuters saw each day. He was one of them, and he reveled alike in the sunset and the ships in the harbor and the contrast of the foundry chimneys against the sunset. When the Brooklyn Bridge replaced the ferry, it also succeeded it as an inspiration to poets such as Hart Crane, whose book-length poem The Bridge is perhaps the best known.
Although many painters, photog...
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