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Summary: The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans by Bill Hammack

  • The book uses the “engineering method” as a framework to show how humans solve problems by applying scientific principles, empirical evidence, and creative thinking.
  • The book covers a wide range of topics, from the construction of cathedrals, bridges, and skyscrapers, to the development of photography, radio, and microchips, to the design of everyday objects like soda cans, pencils, and paper clips.
  • The book reveals the hidden history of innovation that shaped our world, the connections between seemingly unrelated inventions, the unsung heroes and overlooked triumphs behind them, and the challenges and responsibilities that come with them.

The Things We Make (2023) dispels the myth around some of the greatest and most ordinary inventions. It retells their making as a creative application of the engineering method, a principle that explains how people in ancient times built some of the marvels that still capture our imagination today.

Introduction: Learn the secret to the world’s most amazing and ordinary inventions

How did the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Incas, Egyptians, and every other civilization around the world build structures that even today make us hold our breath?

Their secret? The engineering method.

Some of the masters who led these massive projects could barely read and write. They didn’t have access to the hardcore data and science now available at the click of a button, but by using the engineering method they were still able to create some of the world’s most impressive feats of craftsmanship.

And it’s possible to apply these same principles to your own life.

So, in this summary to The Things We Make by Bill Hammack, you’ll find out exactly what the engineering method is and how to use it. You’ll see how it’s been implemented to build cathedrals, decide the shape of a soda can, and even win world wars. And by delving into these examples, you’ll begin to understand the theory’s deep relationship with other scientific disciplines and how its application can provide solutions to some of life’s most pressing challenges.

By viewing the world through the lens of the engineering method, you’ll stop seeing the things around you as objects or processes and, instead, as creative beauty and engineering marvels.

Book Summary: The Things We Make - The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans

Understanding the engineering method

When a master mason in thirteenth-century Europe appeared on the scene of a construction site, he was treated with the utmost respect. His skill and vision were always a cut above the rest, but all that glory would fade if you compared his ability in math with engineers or architects of today. Yet, the mason was still an absolute master of his craft. The evidence is in structures like the Saint-Chappelle in France, Girona Cathedral, and countless other structures across Europe.

To build soaring cathedrals with ample space inside the buildings, Christian architects used the pointed arch model that Muslims had learned from Indian Buddhist temples. Easy as it was to copy, it required shrewdness to avoid the massive walls of the cathedral collapsing in on themselves. Thin walls would be suicidal but thick walls would reduce the space inside the cathedral and occupy more land.

So, how could they build solid expansive cathedrals that still remained safe? They went back to an old but genius technique: they used a rope.

They draped the rope over the arch, folded it into three equal parts, and used the markings on the rope to divide the arch into three, every third physically marked on the cathedral. Then they measured the distance from a marked spot to the wall of the arch, and extended it by an equal measure, giving them the precise thickness that would sustain that particular arch.

Through this reliable rule of thumb, the architects obtained the thickness they could build into their walls.

While building the walls they’d keep a look out for cracks, and if they found any, they’d reinforce them with tougher stone. A mason in possession of high-quality stone would cut three inches from his already strong wall, while another with less luck would add three inches of stone for greater strength.

Trying to achieve their goal with limited resources, limited time, uncertainty, and no precise knowledge about the nature of their materials, the master masons of Europe applied old rules of thumb in creative ways. That’s the engineering method, and that’s the process all great products have in common.

They used what they’d learned as apprentices, the knowledge they’d gathered from personal experience, and their intuition to make important decisions, all the while knowing they might make mistakes along the way. The important thing was that they made sure to learn from them.

It’s like covering the center of the board in a chess game; you might not win, but you increase your odds of winning by first setting yourself up nicely. You find shortcuts. Every field or culture uses rules of thumb obtained from sheer pragmatism and engineers build on it to advance humanity.

But before taking that leap, they must first know what it is they’re aiming for.

How engineers decide what’s best

Ordinary tools and tasks must be produced and performed in ways that provide the best value. So how does an engineer decide what’s ideal?

Consider Henry Dreyfuss, the industrial designer who transformed homes and offices with everything from clocks, telephones, thermostats, pens, and other practical appliances.

Not sure what body type to design for in the 1930s, he compiled data from the US Army of what ordinary men and women of the time looked like. From these he made products for the “average person,” and boy did he strike gold!

While his designs didn’t suit everyone, they fit most. Anyone could pick up and use the model 302 desk telephone because it was designed for the average distance between the mouth and the ear. And it was the same for his Honeywell thermostat. His measurements became the industry standard.

But it’s important to remember that engineers never design in a vacuum. They’re informed by their culture, so their inventions carry inherent biases. However accurate these American standards were for most Americans of the time, they might not have been the best standard in another culture where people are built differently or have different resources at their disposal.

Circumstances, resources, and knowledge might also vary, so an engineer’s solution in another country might look quite different, and rightly so. The same goes when you take into account, race, age, gender, and countless other factors. For example, when crash test dummies are modeled on males, they exclude women and children. What about a game controller designed for the use of both hands? Or staircases instead of ramps? These aren’t ideal for people with disabilities.

Office temperatures designed to accommodate men will freeze women who have a 35 percent lower metabolic rate. It’s the same with internet algorithms, mostly engineered to suit what their creators are most likely to input, or voice recognition software that struggles with foreign accents.

The notion of “best” even challenges our notion of equality. Most people would agree it’s fair to allocate the same number of toilets to men as women in an office. Now consider that women spend double the time men spend in the toilet, and the ideal starts to flounder.

It’s this engineering mindset that inspired Georgena Terry to design her own bicycle using Henry Dreyfuss’s data on women. The women who’ve tried her bicycles say they don’t hurt their necks and shoulders as much as other bikes. That’s because women’s upper bodies are proportionately longer than those of men, and their center of body mass differs. Terry shortened the distance from the seat to the handlebars and then narrowed the handlebars. These changes make it possible for women to ride upright. Through this clever application of the engineering method, she’s gone on to sell millions of bicycles.

To an engineer, the best solution is the one they can manage under the circumstances, so they keep pushing the boundaries to find better and more inclusive solutions.

How engineers deal with limited resources and uncertainty

A senior official who traded wine in Carchemish, a city-state around the Turkey-Syria border in the seventeenth century BCE, received an order of 18,000 bottles of wine from the neighboring king of Mari.

If delivered, he’d make three times his cost. Using a conventional boat down the rough Euphrates River to Mari was out of the question, but a road caravan would leave them at the mercy of armed bandits.

They needed a solution fast, so they turned to a kelek, a 50-foot square raft made from large tree trunks and protected by inflated goat skin. With the remaining room left on the raft, they filled the space with live donkeys.

When the kelek docked at Mari, the crew delivered the wine and then sold all the raft’s wood at a premium because good wood was rare in Mari. Then they dried and packed their precious goat skins on the donkeys and rode them back to Carchemish.

That’s some piece of engineering genius. Inventors and makers are always struggling with limited time, energy, materials, and circumstances out of their control. To solve problems, they need vision, agility, and knowledge of their environment and circumstances.

The materials around you should determine what you make. If you have wood, you use wood. The shape and form of a car are adapted to the kind of fuel it uses, and as fuels start to evolve – as they are now – there’ll be a steady evolution of the forms cars and machines take.

The role of the engineer is to weigh all the variables to predict the best possible outcome, making trade-offs and fine-tuning the process along the way.

The soda can is a great example of one such trade-off. More cuboid cans fit into a given space than cylindrical ones, but sharp edges would be weak and more likely to break. The cylindrical can’s curved surface is stronger and uses less material, so the engineer opts for the stronger can which still manages to stack like a cuboid because of a well-designed top.

No solution-seeker ever has the perfect circumstances or resources, but there are always clever ways to solve a problem.

The role of science in engineering

When Navy ships lined up for official review at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, they weren’t ready for Charles Parsons. He’d made his way into the lineup through some high-level connections – a risky bet, but when it came down to it, his ship came from behind to beat the most formidable Navy ships of the day.

So how did Parsons’s steam turbine engine become the standard? And why do we still use it to generate most of the electricity we consume today from coal, gas, and nuclear plants?

Parsons’s childhood was steeped in mechanics. His father, William Parsons, had machines lying all over the family compound in Ireland where Parsons frequently saw glassblowers and blacksmiths at work. William Parsons was an astronomer who at one point even owned the world’s largest telescope, the Leviathan.

Charles Parsons was one of the first engineers who graduated from college with a mastery of math and physics, and he used that experience to find solutions for his steam turbine.

He wanted to design a faster, more efficient steam engine that used less coal, needed less material, less maintenance, and made less noise. Time spent on the problem produced a reasonable hypothesis. If he slowed down the speed at which steam flowed through a turbine just enough, his engine would have time to extract more energy from the hot steam.

So who did he turn to?

Parsons studied the work of nineteenth-century scientists who’d already cataloged the properties of steam. To decipher the exact relationship between steam properties and machines, he turned to the work of William John Macquorn Rankine, the founder of thermodynamics, and other prominent scientists who’d published on the subject.

Using this knowledge, he began to understand what was possible and what would waste his time. Knowing that, Parsons was able to trial experiments that would quickly take him to a solution, and eliminate wasted time on guesswork.

It still took a decade, but through trial and error, he finally built a system that could slow down the passage of steam just enough to extract more energy.

In other words, he used science to find reliable rules of thumb. You see, engineering isn’t just applied science; it’s a creative process that involves more than knowing your math.

Other scientists had access to the same knowledge and data, but they didn’t venture into the creative space that inspired Parsons to predict the future. Science made it possible for him to get to the finish line faster, just like a hammer helps a carpenter make chairs.

But having a hammer doesn’t make you a carpenter.

Following his successful stunt at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Parsons’s steam turbine was adopted by the British Navy, and soon became the global standard for power generation. His engine was one of the systems adopted to power the Titanic.

But this leaves us with another question: If Charles Parsons relied on past knowledge to create new rules of thumb, who then should take credit for the invention?

There’s no such thing as a lone inventor

One of the greatest rivalries in tech happened between Thomas Edison and Hiram Maxim. Of course, Edison eventually came out on top, he’s the one whose name you remember. But it wasn’t that simple.

Thomas Edison had invested time, men, and the financial resources from his investors into making an electric light bulb. He succeeded, but his incandescent bulbs would shine only for a few minutes before sputtering out. Every time the filament would burn out.

Edison, Maxim, and their contemporaries had advanced the knowledge they’d inherited, but it became apparent the single most pressing problem of the electric light bulb was to find a filament that could withstand the heat.

Meanwhile, Maxim had made great strides in modernizing filaments. And together with Lewis Latimer, a young African-American inventor, successfully designed a bulb that could last up to 40 hours.

Edison hated Maxim’s success on the light bulb, and Maxim hated that people thought he’d stolen Edison’s idea, but neither would have made the progress they’d made without the knowledge they’d learned from previous generations or the teams they relied on.

The story of the lone inventor is fascinating and easy to tell, but it doesn’t do justice to all the hard work of the collective and their contributions to life-changing inventions. There’s no such thing as a lone inventor.

The complexity of innovation

The microwave oven has an even more complex story. During World War II, the British developed a high-frequency short-wave emitter called a magnetron to improve the detection of Nazi fighter planes. The advanced magnetron was portable, and it was clear it would change the course of the war if mass-produced. But the British hadn’t found a way to mass produce them, and even if they could, they lacked the raw materials. The Nazi blockade around the British Isles meant raw materials couldn’t be received at the rate that they’d need them.

So the British found a way to smuggle their model across the Atlantic to America, where Percy Spencer, a scientist and engineer, found an affordable way to mass-produce the magnetron with cheaper materials. Percy Spencer, an employee at Raytheon, a radio and vacuum tube production company, started working on the project in 1940.

Spencer’s version of the magnetron not only helped defeat the Nazis, but it also changed the way we eat. The magnetron, in transmitting short waves of high frequency, generated heat. It was essentially a microwave oven. Some soldiers used the device to warm themselves during the war, but the dominant story tells of how the magnetron melted Spencer’s chocolate bar and led him to invent the microwave.

After the war, chunky versions that could fully cook food in only minutes were adapted for use by restaurants. But in order to adapt the microwave to a smaller version for home use required even more affordable materials, materials which would only work if the energy source was adapted to their properties. So when choosing the materials, Spencer and his employer Raytheon sacrificed the cooking speed of at-home microwaves, but this was a trade-off that microwave users didn’t actually mind.

The story of the microwave shows how complex innovation can be. The at-home microwave was never the goal, yet the world ended up with an invention it never knew it needed.


People with a depth of knowledge in their field can push boundaries when they apply creative solutions to current problems. To tackle these problems, they can use available resources and wade through uncertainty and error to discover what the best possible outcomes should be.

But remember, the “best” possible outcomes don’t always work for everyone. Engineers always subconsciously carry their motivations and the influence of their culture with them, but luckily a good understanding of the history and contributions of people from different backgrounds helps them appreciate the tools they use.

Going forward, you’ll no doubt appreciate engineering as an art, a discipline capable of using scientific evidence to create new rules of thumb and, when those rules become obsolete, pushing the boundaries further for the advancement of humanity.

Who knows, you might even use the engineering method to find shortcuts in your own life!

About the author

Bill Hammack is a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois and the host of the engineerguy Youtube channel. His work has received nine national awards from a diverse group of engineering, scientific, and journalistic societies. In 2019 he was the recipient of the prestigious Carl Sagan Award. He lives in Chicago with his family.


History, Philosophy, Creativity, Education, Nonfiction, Science, Engineering, Design, Technology, Historical, Transportation, Engineering Patents and Inventions, Anatomy, History and Philosophy of Science


The book is a fascinating exploration of the hidden history of innovation that shaped our world, from the ancient times to the present day. The author, Bill Hammack, is a professor of engineering and a popular YouTube creator who has a passion for explaining how things work. He uses the “engineering method” as a framework to show how humans solve problems by applying scientific principles, empirical evidence, and creative thinking.

He covers a wide range of topics, such as the construction of cathedrals, bridges, and skyscrapers, the development of photography, radio, and microchips, and the design of everyday objects like soda cans, pencils, and paper clips. He reveals the often-surprising connections between seemingly unrelated inventions, the unsung heroes and overlooked triumphs behind them, and the golden rule of thumb that guides every new building technique, technological advancement, and creative solution.

I enjoyed reading this book very much. It is well-written, engaging, and informative. The author has a knack for storytelling and making complex concepts accessible to a general audience. He uses vivid examples, anecdotes, and illustrations to bring the history of invention to life. He also provides insights into the social, cultural, and economic factors that influence innovation and its impact on society. The book is not only a celebration of human ingenuity, but also a reminder of the challenges and responsibilities that come with it.

The book is suitable for anyone who is curious about how things are made and why they matter. It is a book that will inspire you to appreciate the things we make and to make things better. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves learning about science, engineering, and design.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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