Henry Petroski

November 30, 2002

 

Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer
By Henry Petroski
Knopf, 2002.
384 pages. $25.
 

Paperboy: Confessions of a Future EngineerBy Henry Petroskingineering is a discipline that separates the men from the boys. This is easy to prove: Give an unassembled bicycle to an average man and an average boy and you can bet the boy will tinker for a while and then get the whole thing put together (and have fun doing it), while the man desperately tries to remember which kind of screwdriver is a Phillips, gets frustrated, gets distracted, and gets up to grab a beer. The best engineers, be they male or female, are a lot like boys. They have a boy's obsessive inquisitiveness, his love of trial and error, his natural knack for fixing and fuddling and fooling around with gadgets for hours without getting the least bit bored. They don't look at designing and building as a task; for them, it's playtime.

At sixty, Henry Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of civil engineering and professor of history, is still a boy. His books, from To Engineer Is Human to The Evolution of Useful Things, have described the evolution of pencils, bridges, bookshelves--all sorts of products of the mind--with an innocent delight. His new childhood memoir, Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer, is also the tale of the evolution of a useful thing. But it is vastly different from any he has written before, primarily because a young engineer, unlike Petroski's other subjects, is not engineered per se. Boys (and girls) are too complex a creation for that. Nature can only genetically engineer so much of a child; the rest is up to nurture. Petroski's memoir is not as clear-cut or straightforward as his other books, but it makes for an intriguing tale of what happens when a child with a natural predisposition toward engineering is encouraged, by teachers or free time, to develop it.

The book is also a testament to the indefatigable curiosity of boys. We join Petroski on the cusp of adolescence in Cambria Heights, Queens. It is 1954 and, on his twelfth birthday, he is scrambling to piece together a new bike before his well-meaning but technologically hapless father can get his "meaty hands" on it. To the unexpected delight of his father, young Petroski succeeds.

The bike leads to a gig delivering the Long Island Press, and the protagonist sets off on the route to adulthood. Along the way, he meets a cast of coming-of-age characters: the older paperboys who smoke cigarettes on their breaks and reveal to him "how babies are made," the teacher who always gets his name wrong and is probably doing it on purpose, the cute girl. These episodes are painted with the brushstrokes of Norman Rockwell, quaint and warm vignettes in learning the ways of life.

Petroski deftly evokes the mid-1950s of his youth with the help of Press headlines that punctuate the book: McCARTHY 'JURY' WILL READ FBI LETTER, MORTY GOLD ROBBED OF BIRTHDAY JEWELS, CHINESE REDS FREE 9 YANK CIVILIANS. (As the author notes, though they were actually typeset in upper and lower case, headlines tend to stick in the memory as all-caps.) Petroski is living these historic experiences without realizing, or particularly caring, that they are historic. "After delivering the paper for a while, Press boys might have been able to recognize a folded copy of the Press lying on a stoop at thirty feet, but they could not say what was in it," he writes. "No matter what the dateline, front-page headlines would pass under the eyes and between the fingers."

He prefers folding the paper to reading it. Actually, proper folding is the key to his success as a paperboy. He becomes utterly fixated on putting together a bundle that will stay in one piece when launched onto a porch. The enterprise is so complex that it takes him an entire chapter, with a photo illustration, to describe it. The same attention to detail would serve him well later in his career.

Petroski is not writing Paperboy: Confessions of a Cambria Heights Kid, in which case the cute girls would be central figures and the technicalities would be, well, technicalities; he is writing about the engineer at age twelve, for whom technicalities are central. In the end, that is what makes this memoir so charming. Many writers of Petroski's age could have delivered Rockwellian reminiscence, but few could convey, in an adult voice, the fascinations and obsessions of the young so convincingly.

We all become preoccupied as children, whether with Star Wars or piano-playing or building a better newspaper. For most, these manias are fleeting, but a few of us remember and cherish the details throughout our lives. The more fortunate--often engineers--find ways to parlay their childhood passions into careers. Petroski is in this last, lucky group. And we are luckier for his account of it.

 


Carmichael '01 is a science writer at Newsweek.