Remembering Sigma Xi Fellow Henry Petroski

June 15, 2023


Engineer, writer, and long time Duke University professor Henry Petroski passed away on June 14 at the age of 81. He was a distinguished member of the 2021 cohort of Sigma Xi Fellows and a regular contributor to American Scientist magazine.

Petroski was the Aleksandar S. Vesic Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Civil Engineering at Duke University, where for most of his four-decade career he also held an appointment as professor of History. He earned a mechanical engineering degree from Manhattan College in 1963 and graduate degrees in theoretical and applied mechanics from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1968.

In 1985, Petroski published his first book for the general reader, To Engineer is Human. As an extended essay on the nature of engineering, and why most engineering designs succeed but some fail, the book was later developed into a BBC television documentary, which Petroski wrote and presented in 1987. He went on to write several other books that focused on everyday objects and structures, from paper clips to supermarkets, most notably 1992's The Evolution of Useful Things.

Since 1991, Petroski had been writing the engineering column in Sigma Xi's American Scientist magazine. Selections of these columns, which range across the spectrum from success to failure and deal with designed objects and systems of all kinds, have been collected in the books Remaking the World (1997) and Pushing the Limits (2004). Most recently, his "Museum of Bridges" in the May–June 2023 issue, explored the engineering and artwork behind some of the nation’s most iconic bridges. His contributions to the magazine and distinguished accomplishments in his field earned him recognition as a Sigma Xi Fellow in 2021.

"I have been a proud member of Sigma Xi as I moved from academia to a national laboratory to Duke University, where I became affiliated with the Society's Duke Chapter," said Petroski in 2021. "Over the years, my research interests evolved from the highly theoretical field of mathematical continuum mechanics to the very applied field of engineering design, in which I specialized in the topic of failure. To test my hypotheses about the interrelationship between success and failure, I used historical data, which led me to develop an interest in the history of bridges. It was these topics that I spoke on as a Sigma Xi National Lecturer from 1991 to 1993. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting many Sigma Xi chapters and marveled at the enthusiasm of members I met across the country. I still get great pleasure writing about bridges and other aspects of engineering design, as well as the feedback I receive from American Scientist readers."

Petroski's books, articles, and talks earned him six honorary degrees, the Washington Award from the Western Society of Engineers, the Ralph Coats Roe Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the History and Heritage Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Walter Harding Distinguished Achievement Award in Scholarship from the Thoreau Society. He was a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Engineers of Ireland, and was a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He was also an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

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More About Sigma Xi: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The Society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety