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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationNOVEMBER 2007Volume 17 | Number 3 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
COVER STORY:  ‘PATCH AND PRAY’ - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
FEATURE: GM SHIFTS GEARS - BY MARY LORD
FEATURE: EYE ON THE WORLD - BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: Thinking Simple - HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Don’t Overlook Industry - By DONALD A. KEATING & EUGENE M. DELOATCH

TEACHING TOOLBOX
TEACHING TOOLBOX: Knowledge Builders - WITH ‘ELECTRIC PICKLES,’ SPACE-SHUTTLE TILES AND OTHER ATTENTION-GRABBING STRATAGEMS, COLLEGE AND GRADUATE STUDENTS SEEK TO INSPIRE A YOUNG GENERATION OF POTENTIAL ENGINEERS. BY BARBARA MATHIAS-RIEGEL
JEE SELECTS: The Habit of Learning - SCOTT JIUSTO AND DAVID DIBASIO
ON THE SHELF: Our Town, Our World - ROBIN TATU


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REFRACTIONS: Thinking Simple - HENRY PETROSKIHenry Petroski
 


A common object can have an uncommon history, which may not be accurately told on the Internet.

In the course of writing a book on design, I wanted to illustrate some basic ideas with the simplest thing I knew. The object I decided to use was the common wooden toothpick. It consists of a single part made of a single material and was originally intended for a single purpose, from which it derives its name. The toothpick is a simple machine (a lever) whose story I thought would be both interesting and instructive.

As I have found in other cases, the simpler and more common the thing, the more complex and uncommon can be its history. But getting to that history often requires considerable effort. My search of library catalogs found no comprehensive history of the toothpick.

The Internet and World Wide Web have introduced alternatives to the traditional library, of course, and the likes of Google and Wikipedia are often seen as sources of ready information. But trying to patch together a coherent history of the toothpick from Web pages alone proved to be an exercise in frustration.

According to various Internet sources, the toothpick was invented by: “some students at Harvard” or “Charles Forster in his basement in Boston” or “in Bangor by Charles Forster.” Furthermore, “Charles Forster invented the automatic toothpick-making machine” but “Silas Noble and J. P. Cooley patented the first toothpick-manufacturing machine.”

I have frequently warned students that Internet sources can be grossly unreliable, not to mention contradictory. As I delved deeper into the origins of the toothpick, I realized that it not only promised to be an excellent case history of nineteenth-century mechanical engineering, mass-production and marketing, but also promised to be a compelling example of how wrong Web information can be.

There is one type of Internet resource that did prove to be invaluable in unscrambling the history of the toothpick. Increasingly, entire newspaper and periodical archives are becoming available and electronically searchable. The digitized volumes of the likes of the New York Times and Scientific American hold enormous stores of information but, as readers know, they also are not infallible ones.

Once an error is introduced into a story about something, it tends to propagate; subsequent stories repeat the error and sometimes embellish it. This seems to happen even more frequently and more quickly on the Web than in the print media. To separate the truth from the fiction requires going to primary sources. In the case of the technical history of the toothpick and its manufacture, the key resources proved to be patents and patent files at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

Archival patent files contain correspondence between an applicant (or the applicant’s legal representative) and patent examiners and other background information that does not make it into a published document. Furthermore, where an inventor sought to have a patent reissued or have its term extended, the files contain evidentiary proceedings that address the history of the invention and its embodiment in a machine or process.

Patent and trademark documents related to the toothpick and its manufacture were key to unraveling some of the contradictions found on the Web.Patent and trademark documents related to the toothpick and its manufacture were key to unraveling some of the contradictions found on the Web. It was not Charles Forster who developed the first toothpick-making machine but the Boston inventor Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant, who sold the rights to his patent to Forster’s fiancée, Charlotte Bowman. Because Sturtevant also patented the product of his machine, Noble and Cooley could not use theirs to make wooden toothpicks. Harvard students were used to market what Forster made.

While we cannot expect our own students to go to the National Archives for their term papers, we must teach them to be skeptical of what they read on the Web.

Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, is the author of The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, which has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf.

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