Reviews for Things we make : the unknown history of invention from cathedrals to soda cans

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

An informative book about how the impulse of engineers to solve real-world problems is the source of progress. Hammack, a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois and the award-winning creator of a YouTube channel called engineerguy, has the ability to break down complex subjects into simple steps. In this insightful book, he tackles the broad subject of engineering and how it underpins the world we live in. He believes that all engineering stems from a number of “rules of thumb,” and the aim is always to make something that works. “The scientific method creates knowledge; the engineering method creates solutions,” he writes. Progress occurs through systemized trial and error based on careful observation. This is not to say that engineers disdain science and mathematics but only to note that their emphasis is on the practical. Hammack points to several cases in which the underlying scientific principles were only worked out after an invention was up and running. Another strategy is to build on past knowledge, including the inventions of others. For example, the light bulb could not have been developed without the tungsten filaments that had already been invented. Another rule is to accept trade-offs. Engineers must balance constraints to arrive at an optimal—not necessarily perfect—solution. An invention might not have the theoretical elegance of a math equation, but the engineer doesn’t care as long as it gets the job done. Hammack explains his material in straightforward language, and in the concluding chapter, he makes a case for engineering to take place within a moral and ethical framework. The engineer’s capacity to make things that function well should be leavened by public debate on what shouldbe done, and an understanding of the processes involved. “To engineer,” writes the author, “cuts to the core of being human.” Hammack writes with admirable clarity, authority, and wisdom. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publishers Weekly
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Chemical engineer Hammack (Eight Amazing Engineering Stories) makes a fascinating case that engineering isn’t the same as science in this sweeping history. He defines engineering as “solving problems using rules of thumb that cause the best change in a poorly understood situation using available resources,” and suggests that such problem-solving is “the force that has created the human world as we know it.” He begins with medieval cathedrals—immense, beautiful, and durable structures built by masons using “experience-derived, provisional guidelines, none of which guarantee a correct answer, yet when woven together create works of stunning utility, reliability, and beauty”—and hopscotches forward through breakthroughs in, for instance, ceramics that were made thanks to “key strategies of the engineering method” (including “building on past knowledge” and “accepting trade-offs”), and the advent of the microwave oven, which became ubiquitous despite being “a failed version of what the Raytheon engineers were trying to build.” Hammack brilliantly delineates the role of trial and error in human progress, and presents a knockout argument that a perfect understanding of the world is not a prerequisite to innovation. This clever and curious account delivers. (Mar.)

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

The Things We Make is a heartfelt ode in praise of engineers. Hammack, a long-time engineering educator, argues that far from merely being "applied science," engineering boasts a robust method all its own, meaningfully separate from science. He offers several compelling examples of how engineering has changed our world and pushes back against the harmful myth of the lone inventor, which too often excludes the work of marginalized individuals, and perpetuates popular misunderstandings of what engineering actually is. The book starts with a description of how, in the Middle Ages, illiterate masons who didn't know any math managed to build Gothic cathedrals that have stood for centuries. Other examples range from the development of color photography to the creation of designer enzymes, from such marvels as the modern computer chip to the quotidian soda can. He really runs the gamut with his examples, but all of them show how engineering utilizes rules of thumb and compromise solutions to resolve real-world problems.The Engineering Method, as much as the Scientific Method, stands as one of humanity's greatest achievements. A must-read for anyone interested in engineering or the history of technology and human achievement.