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- By Henry Petroski

Unfolding the News

When I 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 for delivery.

Neither 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 much 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.

If there 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.

That all 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.

If engineers 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.

I was 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.

Thus, 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.

Last year, 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.

But, as 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.

 

Henry 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 hpetroski@asee.org.