The Evolution of Useful Things

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

How did eating utensils as we know them today come to be, queries Henry Petroski in the opening sentences of THE EVOLUTION OF USEFUL THINGS; and why are there so many forms of tableware in Western societies but only chopsticks in Eastern cultures? Is there a single theory or rule which governs invention throughout the world; and, if such a theory or rule exists, why do items designed ostensibly for a single purpose often exist in so many forms? Does form actually follow function? Is necessity really the mother of invention?

What drives all creators to create and all inventors to invent, asserts Petroski, is the perception that something is failing to meet a need as easily and efficiently as it could. Furthermore, the perceived shortcoming is of sufficient importance that there is a desire to eliminate or, at least, minimize it. Because no thing can ever be perfect and even our perceptions of perfection develop and modify over time, every thing, in the end, is subject to change.

Using the writings and patent applications of inventors, Petroski provides insight into how inventors go about inventing: how they define the problem and develop the solution. By tracing the evolution of such mundane items as straight pins, paper clips, zippers, saws, Post-it notes, aluminum cans, and MacDonald’s fast-food packaging, the author demonstrates convincingly that “form”, in fact, follows “failure” and that “want” rather than “need...drives the process of technological evolution.” The efficacy of an item or form, however, cannot be judged in total objectivity. A form may fail because of more subjective constraints such as competition, morality, politics, aesthetics, and culture. Whatever the reason the paper clip has survived in its most popular present form since the turn of the century or MacDonald’s so quickly abandoned its foam food containers, Petroski’s book provides a highly readable excursion through the process of invention, with many witty and enlightening stops along the way.