Book Review: The Evolution Of Useful Things

I recently re-discovered a fascinating book that served as a great travel companion a number of years ago.  It is a 1994 book called The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski.  The author skillfully explores the drivers of innovation and invention by examining the history and, well…evolution…of some everyday objects to prove his point.  In this book, Petroski tests the theory that want rather than need is the true driver of invention through the identification of failures or shortcomings.  This challenges the notion that “necessity is the mother of invention.”  A quote from Thomas Edison referenced in the book summarizes Petroski’s theory quite well, “Restlessness is discontent – and discontent is the first necessity of progress.  Show me a satisfied man – and I will show you a failure.”

A few of the stories include tracing how the pin inspired the paperclip (bonus points if you know the name of the most common shape of paperclip), how forks were developed out of the use of knives, how a church choir influenced the invention of Post-It Notes, the evolution of the tin can as it relates to beverages and how safety pins and zippers are related.  In each case, the invention of these everyday items was an evolution by identifying a better or more practical way of doing something.

From a business perspective, the same theory can apply – in terms of identifying issues and searching for better outcomes.  We are always looking to make things more efficient, easier and the like.  And much like the common paperclip, some of the work people do may make a big difference in the lives of others but it may not always receive a lot of fanfare or attention.

This book will resonate with those who strive for continuous improvement, have a general curiosity about things and to those who love random trivia.  Either way, it presents numerous case studies about what drives change and innovation.  In my humble opinion, these seemingly mundane items have an interesting history that is worth sharing.  In addition, the author does a great job weaving in detail about the lives of the people behind these objects and provides plenty of cultural context.  The Evolution Of Useful Things certainly gave me a greater appreciation for the time, energy and thought that goes into the products that make everyday living easier.

Overall, it is an easy, pleasant and entertaining read that I would highly recommend.

NML NPS Rating:  9

Review By Matt Link