Tuesday, January 16, 2007


The following is excerpted from a note from Joe Barry, a fellow Sloyd enthusiast and former woodshop teacher:

I've been reading Henry Petroski's new book "Success Through Failure: the paradox of design". If you haven't read his book "Pencil", I recommend it highly. In this new book he refers to something of interest to you:(pg. 98)

"As different in scale as small and large things could be, they were very similar in how they were conceived and designed. Thus, those who mastered the crafting of small things had a leg up on the large. This was especially important in times when formal education was rare and virtually nonexistent for inventors and engineers. The historian Carolyn Cooper finds this idea embodied in "the myth of the Yankee Whittling Boy, which says that American inventions of the nineteenth century came from youthful practice with a pocketknife." She believes that the essence of the myth is captured in an "obscure poem published in 1857" by the Reverend John Pierpont, which reads in part:

His pocket-knife to the young whittler brings
A growing knowledge of material things.
...
Thus, by his genius and his jack-knife driven,
Ere long he'll solve you any problem given;
Make any gimcrack, musical or mute,
A plow, a coach, an organ or a flute;
Make you a locomotive or a clock;
Cut a canal or build a floating dock;
Make anything, in short, for sea or shore,
From a child's rattle to a seventy-four;
Make it, said I? Ay, when he undertakes it,
He'll make the thing and the machine that makes it."

Interesting parallel with the Swedish peasant with his intuitive sheath knife skills and the Yankee Whittling Boy with his "growing knowledge of material things..." It would seem Solomon was feeling the same vibrations in the Force at the end of the nineteenth century..,

Thank you Joe for your reflections and for the poem. I hope others will be willing to share in the same manner. I've been thinking lately of something that very few will remember. Back in the 1970's Chairman Mao challenged all the small communes in China to become backyard steel makers to resolve a serious supply shortage. The whole thing was an abysmal failure with huge quantities of useless pig iron being made from every piece of scrap in the country. Forests were burned as fuel, and even useful steel was fed into the ravenous mouths of the back yard smelters. These days, the thing is regarded as a joke. But for human beings nothing is wasted. Even the worst experience can hold the seed of future success. Links to the books Joe mentions are here: Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design by Henry Petroski... The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski.

Today in the woodshop, the 3rd and 4th graders made model rocket ships as part of their study of space. I didn't have time to take photos today, so the images above and below were from two years ago.

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