The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance 1st Edition
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Petroski ranges widely in time, discussing the writing technologies of antiquity. But his story really begins in the early modern period, when, in 1565, a Swiss naturalist first described the properties of the mineral that became known as graphite. Petroski traces the evolution of the pencil through the Industrial Revolution, when machine manufacture replaced earlier handwork. Along the way, he looks at some of pencil making's great innovators--including Henry David Thoreau, the famed writer, who worked in his father's pencil factory, inventing techniques for grinding graphite and experimenting with blends of lead, clay, and other ingredients to yield pencils of varying hardness and darkness. Petroski closes with a look at how pencils are made today--a still-imperfect technology that may yet evolve with new advances in materials and design. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Henry Petroski has taken on the challenge to track down and retell the history of the pencil in all its wonderful minutia. Starting from its murky origin through its industrialization to its place in our modern society (of the early 1990’s) the pencil has had an incredibly complex history and mix of economics and creativity that is inherit to any engineering endeavor. For Petroski the history of the pencil is a perfect metaphor for what he calls the engineering method. He makes a pretty convincing argument for treating the practice of engineering in the same manner that we treat the scientific method. It doesn’t take Petroski much arguing to convince the reader that engineering is so pervasive in our everyday lives, that it warrants more study of how engineers perform their jobs and make the things we simply can’t live without. However, since much of engineering is tied up in drawings and diagrams of designs and solutions, that there simply aren’t enough eloquent engineers to explain the process to the public in the same ways as popularizers of science.
Luckily, Petroski is an eloquent historian, whose enthusiasm for his subjects is infectious. Now full disclosure here, I’m something of a wood case enthusiast, so I need little selling on the arcane history of the pencil. For most folks it’s a bit of harder sale, which is understandable of course. But Petroski does such a good job of making the history relatable and easy to read that it feels more like reading a general history rather than a dry history of some dull everyday object. It’s not a page turner by any means, but I think there is enough information and enough exploration of the engineering methodology to keep anyone interested until the end. Then again I could be completely blinded by love of the pencil that this could all be completely terrible and not worth reading. So yeah, I thought it was great, not sure if everyone else will.
*1st draft of this review written with a General’s Layout (Extra Black) No.555 B-core pencil
Having said that, there is much to enjoy here: great stories about mining Borrowdale "plumbago," the creativeness of Thoreau as pencilmaker, the 1847 discovery by Jean Pierre Alibert of a vast deposit of graphite on the border of Siberia and China, and the trials and successes of Armand Hammer's pencil making venture for the Soviet Union. "Appendix B," a discussion of Petroski's own pencil collecting, is as entertaining as anything in the book.
Top international reviews
I wanted to know about the pencil, but only a first section is about it, the rest is about The Pencil Production by American Factories.
But at least now I have a list of names to use for my next researches.
The book is well enough written, and contains interesting considerations about engineering.