Duke Engineer Turns His Intellectual Curiosity to His Days Delivering Newspapers

DURHAM, N.C. -- Henry Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, has written about bridges, pencils, paperclips, books and bookshelves, engineering errors and more. In his latest book, he turns his intellectual curiosity inward, to his teenage days when he delivered newspapers.

In Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer (Alfred A. Knopf, March 2002), Petroski describes in detail how one folds a newspaper perfectly and flips it onto the stoop of a house from a speeding bike. He outlines the day-to-day practicalities of delivering 100 newspapers a day. He explains how the paperboy was part of a technological process that delivered news to subscribers.

"I suspect that my introduction to a host of frustrations as a paperboy helped me to better understand invention and design, and the technology within which they work, and thus become the engineer that I did," he writes. "As a paperboy, I was part of a technology larger than myself. In time, technology became a part of me."

Petroski grew up in the Cambria Heights section of New York City's borough of Queens during the 1950s. His parents had given him a bicycle -- a Schwinn -- for his 12th birthday and since he had the requisite transportation, he soon applied for a job as a deliverer of the Long Island Press, partly for money -- he could earn $15 a week with tips -- and partly to keep busy during the summer.

"The idea of a regular schedule of activity appealed to me. It gave me a fixed fulcrum about which to balance my days. I liked being part of something bigger than myself. I liked the fact that I could count on the Press being delivered to the circulation office each day, and that each day my customers could count on my delivering the Press to them. I liked having to pick up and deliver a number of papers. It was something that I could start and finish every day with a sense of satisfaction. I liked having a daily goal, even if it was one that was as ephemeral as a newspaper."

Petroski had delivered the Press for almost 170 weeks and had folded more than 100,000 papers when he decided to retire as a paperboy. He had gone through two bikes, a half-dozen delivery baskets and several sets of tires and inner tubes.

One of the papers he delivered, on Oct. 5, 1957, carried the banner headline "Soviet ‘Moon' Spotted Over U.S."

"After Sputnik and the relentless headlines it had generated, I knew, even if only in a subliminal way, that engineering was in my future," he writes.

"Engineering, I would learn, is neither math nor science, though it uses them as fundamental knowledge and as tools. In its most basic form, engineering is the synthesis of things, as a working computer comes out of the idea of a computer and its parts, or as a three-dimensional bicycle comes out of a flat box of its parts.

"Being an engineer is in fact a lot like being a paperboy. In theory, all a Press boy had to have was a route book full of house numbers and special delivery instructions, a bicycle with a big basket and a reliable source of newspapers. In practice, he had to have stamina and resolve. And he had to have hands and a plan and a willingness to learn how to fold and how to pack and the savvy to learn when to double-fold and when to stuff. He had to have rules of thumb. He had to have an arm. He had to learn why his newspapers were exploding over the lawn, or why they were missing their targets. He had to analyze his failures and he had to learn from them. He had to read not the weather forecast but the weather, and he had to know when to put the papers in out of the rain.

"How many papers a paperboy had to draw was math; how he delivered them was engineering. How many papers could fit in the bag was math; how many more could be fit in was engineering. How the bicycle moved with its load was science; how he managed to pedal it up a hill was engineering. How the papers were supposed to be flipped was science; how the papers were flipped was engineering. How the papers landed where they did was science; how the papers got there was engineering.

"How the newsprint soiled his hands was science; how he washed it off was engineering. How much a paperboy had to collect was math; how he collected it was engineering. How many raindrops danced on the head of a paperboy was math and science; how he avoided half of them on his speeding bike was engineering. And simple as the theory might be, it was never that easy in practice."

Petroski writes that in America's rush to catch up to the Soviets, educators wrongly equated science and engineering, "thinking of the latter as following the former." It turned out, he says, there was a missing ingredient, a missing step.

"The engineer had to supply these missing elements, by being an inventor, an improviser, a conjurer, a diviner. Where and how one developed all these talents was as mysterious as the question of the chicken and the egg, or whether heroes are born or made, but they came more from playing with electric trains and bicycles than from playing with bats and balls. It had more to do with being a paperboy than being an office boy."