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Petroski uses the pencil as engineering microcosm


By Henry Petroski.

Alfred A. Knopf, 434 pages, $25.


IN THE DELIGHTFUL VOLUME In Small Things Forgotten, James Deetz showed how the conditions of life and modes of thought of early American settlers can be reconstructed by a careful study of minor artifacts. In doing so, he also brought to the lay reader an appreciation for the intellectual exercise of archaeology. In The Pencil, Duke University engineering professor Henry Petroski takes an even more myopic view of the past, looking no further than the graphite-stuffed wooden stick between his fingers, but manages to find in it good starting point for an examination of technology, international trade, marketing, engineering, and the management of scarce resources.

The author's choice of subject matter is at least as shrewd as it is obvious. In the age of the microprocessor, most modern engineered objects are entirely inscrutable. What is curious to find is that even something as seemingly simple as a wood-cased pencil represents a collection of mechanical and chemical techniques that only a very few people in the world completely understand. Petroski demonstrates that in the story of how pencil manufacture reached its advanced state, one can find lessons appropriate to the design and marketing of all manufactured artifacts, whether automobiles or personal computers.

Apart from a discussion of engineering in all its contexts, in all the ways in which it touches society, the pencil also provides a wonderful excuse to relate historical anecdotes all the way from the 18th Dynasty of Egypt to David Lynch. Massachusetts, as the site of much pioneer American industrialization, figures prominently in the story of the pencil. Several sources credit the first commercial pencil manufacture on this side of the Atlantic to a young woman (unnamed) of either Medford or Danvers. Much more information is available about our most famous pencil-making family, the Thoreaus of Concord, and there is enough Thoreauviana in this monograph to satisfy the most die-hard Henry David fan.

It takes a certain suspension of one's skeptical faculties to embark on a 400-page journey through pencildom, but the trip is a rewarding one -- even if one ends with a sudden craving to run out and buy a case of Berol Mirados or Dixon Ticonderogas.