Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Pencil Review

The Pencil by Henry Petroski

(from the book jacket)
We use it every day of our lives. It is virtually invisible – yet universal and indispensable – part of our world culture. Its function is beyond comment and directions for its use are unwritten. It deserves a celebration, and now it has one.

In this fascinating and charmingly illustrated book, Henry Petroski looks at the pencil and sharpens our appreciation of it. He traces its origins back to ancient Greece and Rome and its present incarnation to the sixteenth century and the discovery of graphite in England. He shows us how it is made (how do they get the lead inside the pencil?). He tells the stories of the pencil’s most famous makers – the great nineteenth-century manufacturers, among them Faber and Dixon – and of a more modest family pencil business, among whose principals was Henry David Thoreau. Petroski seeks out the secret behind the miracle of the pencil’s survival against such formidable competitors as the pen, the typewriter, and the computer. And finally, he looks at the pencil as a prime – perhaps ultimate – example of the elegance of engineering, an object with much to say about the world of modern technology.

This is a book about the engineering and evolution of the pencil. And it is more interesting than it sounds. There are times when it does become a rather dry account, telling you that this company moved here, or this company bought that one. And there are a lot of things explained that you have to really care about to want to read here, like how they get the lead in the pencil and all the different shapes and the reason behind them and things like that. I found a lot of it interesting but many people, I’m sure, won’t. There are also some interesting pencil facts, about the first pencils, why you had to look out for counterfeit pencils (I never knew that making pencils was such big business), why some pencils had mouthpieces and why we call it lead even though it isn’t and lots more. Once again, interesting stuff but only to a select audience. Petroski also makes this account about more than just pencils but uses the pencil to make you think about the engineering all around you. You get a feel, by looking at the pencil and all the parts and all the things you have to think about to make it work, for how much engineering and design go into even the simple things that you might take for granted. Petroski wants to remind people that although it is often the case that the engineering behind something is forgotten because it is not recorded in a lasting medium, but mostly in sketches or technology that becomes obsolete, and maybe an old design may seem unimportant when a new, better design comes along, nothing sprang into being fully formed and the thought and time that went into it are interesting and important and should not be dismissed.

1 comment:

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