It’s hard to imagine writing an entire book about the humble pencil. It’s even harder to imagine finding so much to say about the simple writing instrument that after the volume’s publication, there were chapters left over.
When Duke professor of civil engineering Henry Petroski penned The Pencil, which he did while on sabbatical leave at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C., that’s exactly what happened; he had remainders. But those chapters, too, would eventually see the light of day, in an adjusted format: in 1990, they became Petroski’s first “Engineering” columns in American Scientist magazine.
Over more than 30 years of writing the bimonthly essays, Petroski has delved deeply into engineering topics both mundane and sensational, from bread twist ties to bridge failures.
Sigma Xi, the scientific and engineering research honor society and publisher of American Scientist, had relocated from New Haven, Connecticut to Research Triangle Park earlier that year, and editor Brian Hayes called on Petroski to gauge the professor’s interest in writing for the magazine. Petroski had written two widely reviewed books by then—To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, as well as The Pencil—and he dusted off two chapters from an early draft of the second manuscript and sent them over to Hayes for consideration. “On the Backs of Envelopes,” about quick and dirty calculations, was the first that Hayes printed.
This spring, Petroski—now the Aleksander S. Vesic Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Duke University—published his 183rd consecutive column for American Scientist. Titled “Elevators Rise to the Occasion,” the column shares a brief history of elevators and observations on how the current pandemic has changed public perception of their safety.
Over more than 30 years of writing the bimonthly essays, Petroski has delved deeply into engineering topics both mundane and sensational, from bread twist ties to bridge failures. He managed this while teaching full-time, publishing an additional 17 books for general audiences, and taking on a second regular column for Prism, a magazine published by the American Society for Engineering Education.
Petroski said that while there’s no secret trick to maintaining a steady flow of inspired writing, discipline certainly helps, as does the willingness to follow where one’s curiosity leads.
He shared his reflections on the column, and on writing, in May of 2021.