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Born to Engineer

- By Wray Herbert

In previous books, Henry Petroski has examined inanimate objects such as the pencil and the bookshelf. In his latest, he takes a look at himself.

By Henry Petroski
Alfred A. Knopf, 364 pp. $25

People are born to run and born to be wild. There are natural-born athletes and natural-born politicians. Even natural-born killers.

But natural-born civil engineers? Born to construct?

Henry Petroski indeed believes he had an early, natural inclination to engineer the world—at least his small corner of it—and 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.”

When his 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.”

On his 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.”

And so 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 kitchen—“a grand chemistry laboratory”—watching his mother make pierogies from scratch, he finds the mechanics of the meat grinder “hypnotic.”

If young 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 Press—the central metaphor of “Paperboy”—are 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.”

Simple Things

It's easy 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.

Another 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.

Though 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.

While 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) are—no less than the reporters and editors, the typesetters, and the huge rotary presses, the carloads of newsprint from Canada—elements in a system to keep the citizens of his Cambria Heights neighborhood better informed about changes taking place in the world.

I doubt 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.

But even 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.


Wray Herbert, who is based in Washington, D.C., has written extensively about culture and ideas. He can be reached at