Engineer unfolds life's mysteries

For Henry Petroski, even an ordinary hotel room can hold technological wonders.

On tour promoting his new book, "Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer" (Knopf), Mr. Petroski, a civil engineering professor at Duke University, has spent many recent nights in the company of complimentary chocolates on pillows. The experience, he says, has been the source of some recent intellectual turbulence. Consider, for example, "the way maids fix up towels and fold them.

"Every hotel staff has little idiosyncrasies, and some of them are quite clever," he explains in a phone interview from his hotel in New York, marveling that some towels come folded as intricately as table napkins at the Four Seasons.

Petroski doubts he could replicate such mechanical ingenuity – even though he understands intimately and intuitively the physics of suspension bridges.

Appreciation for life's details – as well as its more quotidian features like the paper clip and the box (all of which fold) – can sometimes border on obsession for this professor, who admits he's "always had a thing about things."

In "Paperboy," we meet a young Petroski who drooled over machinery, from bicycle accessories to his mother's meat grinder. Equally fascinating to him was the way bakers fold cake boxes without smearing the icing; the "mechanics of the nun's habit, how it pieced together and fastened to the various parts of her"; and the White Castle burgers whose "square shape meant there was no wasted space on the grill or on the matching square bun."

It's this piety around the common-but-nifty that drives "Paperboy," not to mention Petroski's earlier books such as "The Pencil," and "The Book on the Bookshelf."

"Paperboy" is by turns an insider's look at delivering papers and a tour of Long Island in the days of Elvis Presley, the Dodgers, and Civil Defense drills. Mostly, though, it's a memoir of a budding engineer for whom the news business was "a tour de force of technology."

More than a paper on a doorstep

Petroski joined the fraternity of paperboys for the now-defunct Long Island Press in 1954, the summer before he began eighth grade and the year his parents moved from Brooklyn to the Cambria Heights neighborhood of Queens.

Most papers did not yet arrive on stoops in customized plastic bags. Instead, Petroski had to learn to fold the newspaper, tucking it inside itself in such a way that it held together when tossed from a moving vehicle – in his case, a prized Schwinn bike.

This one feat – at first as elusive as a hat trick – preoccupied the 12-year-old. Then, an older boy's perfectly folded newspaper was a mechanical riddle for Petroski to solve.

Looking back in "Paperboy," however, he also sees its poetry: "It was a billet-doux wrapped in its own envelope, an aerogram from Shangri-La."

For such sentences, Petroski has earned the title, "poet laureate of technology." In fact, what becomes apparent in talking to the engineer is that he is an unlikely combination of mathematical brain power and a more irrational curiosity: You can imagine him as a young teen comprehending the chemistry of frozen particles and still sticking his tongue out to touch a flagpole during recess in the dead of winter.

For the reader of his books, that means that Petroski not only can put science in laymen's terms, but also can do so without killing its magic.

By his fourth and last year delivering papers, the headlines in the Press spoke to Petroski: "Education Plan for Space Age Unveiled by Ike: Calls for Aid to Gifted HS Students." Not surprisingly, he was among those students funneled into math and science courses as the United States sank deeper into a cold war.

An eye for the timeless

Petroski notes that after Sputnik, however, early news stories hailed the satellite as a scientific achievement rather than an accomplishment of engineering.

Apparently, that's because most people, including high school teachers, failed to understand the difference between pure science and engineering.

The confusion hasn't abated much today, according to Petroski, who describes the engineer as a hybrid of an inventor and a scientist: the guy who finds practical applications for lab research.

"Scientists discover what is, engineers create what never was," he says, repeating an industry saying and pointing out that the steam engine was successfully designed by engineers before scientists could explain how it worked.

While he exposes a twinge of underdog sentimentality, Petroski seems to have little patience for the polarization that can plague modern engineering debates.

Instead, he prefers to write about more timeless topics, rendering himself a cultural historian by default.

"The Book on the Bookshelf," and "The Pencil" were both histories of sorts. And "Paperboy," too, occasionally casts a historical eye on things like the tradition of delivering papers in the US and the suburbanization of New York boroughs.

Petroski says his next book will deal with engineers' never-ending quest to perfect what they create.

What inventions are in need of improvement? "Everything," he says, but not without a wholesome reminder that "need" might be a bit too strong. "We're really doing well," he chuckles.

Still, for the sake of conversation, he suggests – completely off the top of his head – the toothbrush (perhaps glancing around his hotel room for inspiration?).

"I can reach some sides [of my mouth] better than others ... It seems there might be room for inventing something that changes configuration ...."

• E-mail

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Engineer unfolds life's mysteries
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today