The point of it all

Asa Briggs

  • The Pencil: A History by Henry Petroski
    Faber, 434 pp, £14.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 571 16182 0

‘What in its fullest sense is the idea conveyed in the respective words Paper, Pen and Ink?’ asked George Wilson, a future Regius Professor of Technology at Edinburgh University. The subtitle of his article, ‘Paper, Pen and Ink’, published in Macmillans Magazine in 1859, was ‘an excursus in technology’, and he went on to survey all kinds of pens including, by a convenient extension of the word ‘pen’, ‘printer’s type, the pen of civilisation’, ‘the electric telegraph, the world’s shorthand pen’, and the chisel, ‘by which cathedrals and Sebastopols are written in granite, and gods and men in marble’. The pen for Wilson represented ‘every graphic tool by which painting, writing, printing, carving, inscribing or imprising is affected’.

More than a hundred and thirty years later, an American author, this time a Professor of Civil Engineering – at Duke University – has tried to do for the pencil what Wilson did for the pen, although more ambitiously and at far greater length. Petroski goes further than Wilson in claiming that once we know ‘the story of the pencil in the world’ we will know much also about engineering, including both ‘the inescapable business of technology’ and its ‘mythical proportions’. ‘To reflect on the pencil is to reflect on engineering.’ Indeed, ‘the pencil in our hand can be the automobile in our garage, the television in our home, the clothes, on our back.’

These are bold claims, given that technology is concerned with power as well as with design and function, and given that pencils, unlike steam engines or word-processors, depend mainly on human power for their use. Petroski, a civil not a mechanical or electrical engineer, is in the same line, however, as his compatriot Samuel C. Flosman who produced his engaging book of essays The Civilised Engineer in 1975 to complement his earlier book The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. Petroski’s earlier books include Engineering Essays and Other Attempts to Figure without Equations. There is a background, therefore, to the claims made in The Pencil, which deals, not with great engineering projects, but with a ‘humble’ but ubiquitous object which everyone knows and which sells at the rate of 14 billion a year.

The humility of an object in use is no barrier to rhetorical declarations of pride in its virtues, as the Victorians were the first to recognise; and any curious student of Victorian things, as Petroski shows himself to be, will note at once that there is no shortage of rhetoric either in his book, where most of it is quoted from other sources, usually for fun, or in Wilson’s article, where all the rhetoric is his own. The rhetoric is significantly different, however, for Wilson, described in the Dictionary of National Biography not only as an engineer but as a ‘chemist and religious writer’, ended his highly rhetorical account of the pen not with technology but with theology. God had been content to write His will on the frailest things, and one day ‘the lettered firmament of heaven’ would see ‘all its scattered stars fall like the ruined typesetting of a printer into one tangled mass’. Professor William Thomson had explained it all. God, however, was eternal, and through Him we would – or could – partake in His immortality. The nibs of our pens might rust the ink might fade, and the paper might perish. More seriously, perhaps, what we had written might itself lose its point. It was the writer, therefore, who would – or could – be immortal, ‘not the writing’.

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