By Wray Herbert
books, Henry Petroski has examined inanimate objects such as the pencil
and the bookshelf. In his latest, he takes a look at himself.
CONFESSIONS OF A FUTURE ENGINEER
By Henry Petroski
Alfred A. Knopf, 364 pp. $25
REVIEWED BY WRAY HERBERT
are born to run and born to be wild. There are natural-born athletes
and natural-born politicians. Even natural-born killers.
civil engineers? Born to construct?
Petroski indeed believes he had an early, natural inclination to engineer
the worldat least his small corner of itand there is no
question that he views the world through a different lens than most
of us. And, yes, judging by his new book, Paperboy, he has
seen the world through an engineer's eyes from childhood on. More than
that, he has always revered the well-engineered parts of the world and
disdained those that were conceived clumsily or without imagination.
Just consider these few examples from his entertaining memoir, subtitled
Confessions of a Future Engineer.
family moves from Brooklyn to Queens, he and his brother and sister
are exploring their new home's basement, which was half finished off
in the style of the times. But while his siblings are excited by the
built-in bar and bar stools, young Petroski is drawn to the unfinished
end of the cellar: Here, on a bare concrete floor and beside unpainted
foundation walls, was what made the house work. The oil burner sat like
a Buddha in its own space, immobile yet giving. Out of its corpulent
body, arms reached in all directions, ready to take the warmth of that
body to the rooms of the house.
twelfth birthday, he receives as a present a brand new Schwinn bicycle,
which arrives in a box needing assembly. The future engineer seems to
know intuitively how to go about the project (which he remembers right
down to the ridges in the washers). In the process, he comes to admire
the natural tripod formed by the seat and handlebars of the bike when
it's turned upside down, and he's equally disgruntled by some bad engineering
that makes it impossible to put the shiny new Schwinn together without
nicking its paint job: That something had to be marred to be assembled
properly bothered me as much as the simple tripod pleased me. The part-by-part
perfection of the bicycle in its shipping carton, unassembled, was in
sharp contrast to its blemished wholeness.
on. The streetlight under which Petroski and his friends hang out at
twilight is not just a street lamp, but a graceful structure
that the memorist deconstructs, from its sculpted base to its cantilevered
ornamental arm. When he and his father stop by Ebinger's bakery, where
most 12-year-olds would be drawn to the rows of crullers and coffee
cakes, the budding engineer is transfixed by the construction of the
bakery boxes, and especially by the elegant operation the clerks use
to efficiently secure the boxes with bakery string. Sitting in his kitchena
grand chemistry laboratorywatching his mother make pierogies
from scratch, he finds the mechanics of the meat grinder hypnotic.
Petroski's relationship with the engineered world is at times almost
spiritual and animistic, at other times it's downright erotic. Nowhere
is this more evident than in his description of folding a newspaper
for delivery. Indeed, the mechanics of folding the Long Island Pressthe
central metaphor of Paperboyare described in sensual
detail: The fore edge was worked into the paper's warm insides
by the thrust of the right hand deep into the dark back pages of the
paper. The paper was now in the form of a twisted and skewed tube, and
the male part was given a final seating in the female with a firm thrust,
with what was beneath the fold now enveloping what was above. Finally,
the fingers of the hand caressed the haunches of the paper, and the
whole process was climaxed by a back arching motion that left a side
wise crease that marked the act as done.
to see why Petroski has been called the poet laureate of technology.
Rather than seeing the universe in a grain of sand, he sees it in egg
beaters, kickstands, well-folded newspapers, and other technological
artifacts. Prior to this memoir, he had written entire volumes
on the technological evolution of the pencil and the book shelf, and
another more broadly on The Evolution of Useful Things.
It's not surprising that Petroski has appointments in both the civil
engineering department and the history department at Duke University.
of Petroski's earlier volumes is entitled To Engineer Is Human,
and that sentiment infuses this latest effort, as well. In fact, though
Paperboy is largely a personal remembrance (punctuated with
grainy black-and-white family photos) of growing up in New York in a
simpler time (with a good dose of nostalgia for the Brooklyn Dodgers
and Lionel trains and the proper indignation about Joe McCarthy and
red-baiting), it's also a portrait of an era of perhaps unprecedented
change in the basic technologies that shape the way we live day to day.
As Petroski notes on the first page of the book: We were leaving
behind an icebox for a refrigerator, a bathtub for a shower, a party
line for a private phone, the subways and trolleys for buses and a car.
Any reader old enough to recall iceboxes and party lines will come away
from this memoir celebrating the largely unsung inventors, designers,
and engineers who decided to rethink those primitive technologies.
Petroski emphasizes his emerging identity as an engineer in these pages,
Petroski the historian is also at work here. Interspersed with his vivid
recollections of his own apprenticeship as a paperboy for the Long Island
Press is a history of newspaper delivery and the paperboy subculture,
which dates back at least to 1761, when the New-York Mercury advertised
for a nice boy to carry papers. Here we learn about the
sociology and economics of the news butch, who in an earlier
time hawked the news along with gumdrops and tinned eatables
on the railway trains. One such butch was another entrepreneurial 12-year-old
with a technological bent: Thomas Alva Edison.
these mini-histories seem at first like just entertaining digressions,
it becomes clear as one reads on that they are more than that. Petroski,
his fascination with simple everyday things notwithstanding, is a systems
thinker, and in his vision, the bicycle and the paperboy (with his highly
evolved folding and tossing skills) areno less than the reporters
and editors, the typesetters, and the huge rotary presses, the carloads
of newsprint from Canadaelements in a system to keep the citizens
of his Cambria Heights neighborhood better informed about changes taking
place in the world.
that most suburbanites give a second thought to their wall outlets or
their daily paper and all the connecting technologies that lie behind
these conveniences. So why does Petroski think about the world in this
way? The author himself doesn't really speculate about his own cognitive
evolution, except to suggest that there was a fortuitous convergence
of his natural intellectual proclivities and a historical time period
especially nurturing to such a mind. On October 5, 1957, near the end
of his tenure as a paperboy, Petroski folded and tossed an issue of
the Press with a banner headline: Soviet 'Moon' Spotted Over U.S.
That 'moon' of course was Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that launched
a period of unprecedented scientific and technological competition between
the Cold War adversaries. The saber-rattling headlines in the Press
over the following months document the patriotic fervor that, led among
other things, to the passing of the National Defense Education Act,
a massive federal investment in training more and better scientists.
Petroski was caught up in that sweep.
those facts leave a lot unexplained about Petroski's mind. After all,
thousands of young men and women were lured into the universities to
study science and technology during the Cold War, and many went on to
be practicing scientists and engineers. But only Petroski went on to
think and write so imaginatively about pencils, book shelves, bikes,
and paper routes as the interconnecting elements of our technological
world. No, a more appealing explanation is that Henry Petroski was indeed
a natural-born engineer, born not only to build but to educate and enlighten.
Herbert, who is based in Washington, D.C., has written extensively about
culture and ideas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.