Guest on The Infra Blog: Henry Petroski, Historian & Author of The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure

Posted by Steve Anderson on Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

Henry Petroski Professor of Civil Engineering in Pratt School of EngineeringHenry Petroski is the Aleksandar C. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.  Professor Petroski’s current research activity focuses on the interrelationship between success and failure in design. He also has a strong interest in the nature of invention and in the history of technology. His research has been sponsored by the Corps of Engineers, the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and other organizations.

He is a prolific author having published, in addition to hundreds of articles in newspapers, magazines, and trade journals, more than 75 refereed journal articles and 18 books including To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (1985)Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering (2004), and To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure (2012).

Mr. Petroski’s most recent book is titled The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure. According to Bloomsbury Publishing, “A compelling work of history, The Road Taken is also an urgent clarion call aimed at American citizens, politicians, and anyone with a vested interest in our economic well-being. The road we take in the next decade toward rebuilding our aging infrastructure will in large part determine our future national prosperity.”

Good Infrastructure Is Essential to the Economy
It’s key to the future of infrastructure, I think, that everybody involved have a sense of citizenship, have a sense of commitment to the bigger picture now to both the economy and to the capital improvements in terms of roads and bridges. There’s no doubt that having a good infrastructure is a help to the economy. That’s been, I think, made clear over and over and over again. It’s essential.

Why We Don’t Have High Speed Rail
It should be considered a national embarrassment that we don’t have a better —a high speed rail system. Historically, I think we can understand why we don’t…You can’t really bring existing infrastructure up to speed, if you will. The high speed networks around the world that have been so successful have really been built from scratch. And the United States would just have to bite the bullet and admit that.

We Keep Writing Checks for Bad Work
Roads that aren’t paved correctly should not be paid for. They should be redone. If we have something, work done in our house and it’s not done right, we expect the contractor to redo it. We don’t just write another check. I believe unfortunately that too many times the government that represents the people and spends the people’s tax money does do just that.

Infra Maintenance & Replacement: Common Sense
Politicians get involved at a very high level when there’s a dedication of a new bridge, or they cut the ribbon proudly when a new road is opened, but what they forget and don’t seem to care about is that everything wears out. And this is part of our experience. Why it’s so difficult to understand about infrastructure is beyond me, but we go to the dentist regularly for preventative care. We know that our clothes will wear out and we have to buy new ones. It’s just a fact of life.

Download full transcript (PDF): Henry Petroski on The Infra Blog

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