Saturday, December 01, 2007

Toothpicks and Design

Henry Petroski is a rare individual, an engineer who writes (and well) about engineering for the lay public. In his most recent book, The Toothpick: Technology and Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), Petroski relates how he had found an “engagingly simple device that would serve to illustrate some basic principles of engineering and design and that at the same time would help reveal the inevitable interrelationships between technology and culture” (p. xi). Petroski writes an engaging, informal history of the toothpick, the machinery supporting the manufacture of toothpicks, and the difficulty of finding information about the toothpick (as it turns out the industry is ultra-secret about how it works). As Petroski relates, “Trying to divine how a toothpick was made is no mean feat. Ironically, more complicated things – like automobiles and cellular phones – might be more readily reverse-engineered than the very simple. . . . Things of a whole cannot be disassembled because they have no component parts” (p. 173). This is a good read.

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