Engineering is an incredibly broad field, spanning the construction of humanity’s tallest and largest structures, and the fine control of our smallest physical and digital machines. As such, recommending a single book or author for the budding engineer – who likely has not yet decided how they might specialise – can be challenging.
Here I have tried to present a varied list of engineering books that are above all pleasurable and easy to read, while providing useful information and inspiration to the reader. Whether you want to build machines and buildings or understand why they fail, develop new materials and chemicals or new software for the modern world, I think there is definitely something for you in this list of best books for aspiring engineers!
1. Made to Measure
Made to Measure is a great introduction into how interdisciplinary engineering can be. It looks at recent developments and trends, which include bespoke engineering, to highlight some of the coolest applications of the latest technology. This is particularly insightful for those with an interest in medical engineering as it touches on complex topics such as skin grafts.
It discusses the development as ‘ideas of the future’ and it’s great to reflect on what’s been achieved 20 years later. Overall, it’s a very accessible read and packed with interesting examples. Philip Ball is a highly accomplished science writer, with over 20 years experience at the journal Nature. He has published articles in widely read publications such as New Scientist, The Guardian and the New Statesman.
It is no surprise then that his book is highly accessible to the budding engineer. Ball describes modern revelations in materials science – self-repairing materials, new synthetic polymers, data storage, synthetic diamonds and more. Engineers will have an interest in this for many reasons. First, in order to build structures and machines, we need to understand the benefits and limits of materials we use.
Also – and this is something Ball discusses – by developing new materials we can reach newer and better engineering solutions. It should be noted that the book does not have as strong a focus on metallurgy as some other introductory materials science texts. Let Ball’s approachable writing style guide you through an introduction to the science of materials.
2. How to Think like a Mathematician
Perhaps not the obvious choice for budding Engineers, but this is a great resource for any maths-related subject. It takes a progressive approach, starting with the basics and gradually guiding you through more complex concepts. Better still, it’s filled with exercises so you can put theory into practice and check your understanding as you go. Useful no matter what your mathematical ability.
Engineers will, fortunately or unfortunately, have to do a fair bit of maths in their time. How to Think like a Mathematician teaches you how to read a maths textbook (it is not like fiction!), how to think logically and how to approach independent problem solving of the kind you are expected to do as part of an undergraduate degree.
This excellent book is recommended across the physical sciences at top UK universities, through engineering and the maths degree itself. It is perhaps most relevant to those looking to specialise into “maths heavy” engineering, such as fields related to computer science. Here, being able to whip out a proof at a moment’s notice is an invaluable skill, and this book will teach you how to do it. However, a solid grounding in the fundamentals of doing higher mathematics would be invaluable to any engineer.
3. To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure
To Forgive Design is a strong introduction to some of the world’s most famous engineering failures. However, Petroski goes beyond explaining what went wrong to highlight the importance of learning from these mistakes. This is key to engineering but to any problem-solving exercise. Samuel Beckett lays claim to the phrase ‘try again, fail again, fail better’ and never was this phrase more relevant to a discipline than Engineering.
No list of top engineering books would be complete without an entry from Henry Petroski. A staple in the field, Petroski has written popular engineering books for a wide audience since the 1980s. Petroski makes the point that some of the most interesting engineering problems are raised when systems fail.
Petroski focusses on bridges, but discusses a wide range of engineering failures: oil spills, plane crashes, even computer programming disasters. He describes the importance of “human machinery” in engineering disasters. Understanding how and why engineering solutions fail is vital to any budding engineer.
4. Why Buildings Stand Up: The Strength of Architecture
‘Why buildings stand up’ is one of the most fundamental questions associated with engineering. This book effectively traces the history of this question by taking the reader round the world to explore the engineering behind civilisation’s architectural accomplishments. It covers a number of core engineering principles making it a fantastic and archetypal work that everyone should read, not just engineers.
Salvadori’s colourful writing style brings to life not only the structural engineering of famous buildings across the world, but also the pleasures of historical architecture. From the Eiffel tower to the Pyramids of Egypt…Salvadori explains why they stand up!
This book will interest structural engineers, and especially those looking to understand the relationship between architects and engineering realities in the modern day. For anyone looking for a “part two”, check out the appropriately named follow up book from the same group of authors: Why Buildings Fall Down.
5. The Pleasures of Counting
This is another maths-focused book which I think highlights the importance of mathematics in engineering. It’s a great read, highly engaging and covers fairly complex maths in an easily digestible manner. That said, it is neither patronising nor self-congratulatory in this fact. It talks the reader through the importance and relevance of maths in everyday situations, for example, the design of anchors, giving real-world application to theory.
Dr Tom Körner tells us how applied maths helped solve a cholera outbreak in Victorian London and crack the enigma code in World War II. Seeing these important real-world problems solved provides motivation to those looking to do just what Körner has shown us: use maths to improve the world around us, as engineers.
As well as being an informative and enjoyable read, the book has maths exercises woven into the text, which follow on naturally from the approachable writing style. They really can be exciting and enjoyable to solve after understanding why you are solving the problem you are working on. This provides a small taste of the pleasure many established engineers feel in their work, as well as some valuable practice.
Practice Makes Perfect
There are a wealth of books, articles, journals and blog posts that serve as excellent introductions to the world of engineering. What this selection of books demonstrates is the inter-disciplinary nature of engineering. An undergraduate will learn, not only about various subfields within the world of engineering, but also about advanced mathematics, architecture, history, chemistry, biology, computer science, the list goes on.
That’s why engineering is such a fascinating subject, full of possibility and opportunity. Many engineers may be tempted to forego reading in favour of practical experience, however what each of these books highlights is that practice makes perfect and there is much to be learnt from the mistakes of others.