was a teenager with a paper route, the newspaper was an object to be
delivered rather than read. After school each afternoon and before dawn
on Sundays, I reported to the local circulation office of the Long Island
Press, drew my allotment of a hundred or so papers, and prepared them
rubber bands nor plastic bags were used on the papers then. Rather,
they were folded into self-contained packages that, with a bit of luck,
would hold together until they landed on the proper stoops. The folded
papers were stuffed into a canvas delivery bag, which was blackened
with the ink of many previous editions, and loaded into the large delivery
basket mounted on my trusty and increasingly rusty Schwinn. It took
some effort to pedal the front-heavy bicycle up the hill toward my route,
especially on Thursdays and Sundays when the papers were heaviest, but
getting to the top provided a sense of accomplishment even before a
single paper was delivered.
as I handled newspapers, I seldom read their headlines, let alone the
news stories. At first, my focus was on mastering the mystery of folding
the thing before me. By the time I had become adept at securing one
part of the paper into the other, the newspaper had become so familiar
an object to me that I dealt with it without thinking.
were stories about engineers or engineering in the thousand or so editions
of the Press that passed through my hands during my early years as a
paperboy, I certainly did not pay attention to them. Adults followed
the news about Korea and China and the Middle East and the Soviet Union,
of course, but current events were far from the minds of most of my
friends and me, all of us still years away from draft age.
changed on October 4, 1957. The Soviet Union's successful launch of
the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik, shocked Americans young
and old alike. After that, even we paperboys paid attention to the headlines
and the stories under them.
did not make front-page news before Sputnik, they certainly were the
subject of headlines in the days after. It was suddenly clear that the
United States was woefully behind the Soviet Union in rocket science
and engineering, not to mention deeply threatened by the related technology
of intercontinental ballistic missiles. In the immediate wake of Sputnik's
debut, the Long Island Press and newspapers throughout the country carried
stories of how important the supply of scientists and engineers was
to our nation's future.
a junior in high school at the time, and I was beginning to think about
college and college majors. Such things had not seemed so urgent before
Sputnik as they did after it. Suddenly, the very existence of our nation
was at risk, and it was up to the younger generation to help design
and bring to fruition rival space projects and superior armaments. Any
young man approaching his senior year in high school was made to feel
obligated to consider mathematics, science, and engineering as his major
and, hence, for his career.
more than anything else, it was the ominous presence of Sputnik, orbiting
our planet and transmitting eerie, cryptic signals back to Earth, that
influenced me and so many of my generation to major in engineering.
To be sure, my fascination with the workings of my bicycle, my attention
to its repair, and my attraction to gadgets of all kinds had already
marked me as someone likely to become an engineer. But after Sputnik,
high school counselors were on heightened alert to be sure that we did
not miss the hints. Neither I nor many of my classmates who excelled
in math and science but not in verbal and reading skills could any more
escape the pull of science or engineering in college than an orbiting
satellite could escape the pull of gravity.
the events of September 11 shocked America and the world again. Suddenly
we realized that we were vulnerable to the most insidious attacks on
some of our most visible symbols of technological achievement, military
might, and free enterprise. The New York twin towers, once the tallest
buildings in the world, were brought down by equally visible symbols
of our technological triumph turned into weapons by the terrorists.
they did in the shadow of Sputnik, in the aftermath of the World Trade
Center tragedy, engineers have once again become prominent in newspaper
headlines and stories. It is engineers who are looked to for explanations
of how the physical collapse could have happened, how such catastrophes
might be prevented in the future, and how to help rebuild lower Manhattan.
These new stories are not about a shortage of engineers but about the
important role that they play in our world. I expect that, whether they
deliver newspapers or not, many boys and girls who will be the engineers
of tomorrow are reading these stories with great interest today.
Petroski is the A.S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor
of history at Duke University. His new book, Paperboy: Confessions
of a Future Engineer, has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf.
He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.