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
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.
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.