BOOK REVIEW / Things that go bump in the day: 'The Evolution of Useful Things' - Henry Petroski: Pavilion, 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
IN A strange and shameful oversight, history has not often chosen to record the names of the clever fellows who created the galaxy of handy gadgets we use every day. There are a few famous exceptions - Laszlo Biro; John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, and so on - but for the most part, while it is common for corporations of the sort we usually call faceless to be named after their founders (Ford, Mercedes- Benz, J P Morgan) the small eruptions of inventiveness that gave us zips, Post-it notes, paperclips and the ring-pulls on beer cans have gone unacknowledged.

Henry Petroski is busy establishing a refuge for these forgotten heroes: intrepid eggheads such as Nathaniel Wyeth, the creator of the plastic soda bottle, Richard Drew, who devised masking tape, and Robert Kearns, the man behind the adjustable windscreen wiper. His previous book, The Pencil, was a loving history of the romance between soft graphite and white paper. Now he has written a rather more general survey of all kinds of objects - knives, forks, wheelbarrows, trick mugs, saws, beds, staplers, copying machines, book bindings, press-button telephones and lots more. Inevitably, with such a long list of products to examine, he is forced to be more cursory than we might wish. But he is still able to enrich our everyday life by hanging stories on to things we have come to take for granted.

He is especially interested in the technology of eating and drinking. It is surprising that he does not invoke Margaret Visser's excellent book, The Rituals of Dinner, which is an even more thorough excursion into table manners than his own. He does find room, though, for a marvellous photograph of a 19th- century dinner-table railway. This allowed food to be ferried from the kitchen automatically, and is conclusive proof that even grown men with bushy Victorian beards preferred playing with train sets to eating their greens.

The book begins by tracing the triumphant career of the fork. It arrived on the scene relatively late, being much more complicated to engineer than a knife. But it swiftly ousted the spoon as a way of holding meat steady while the knife-hand sliced and chopped, and was soon elbowing aside the knife as a safe, decorous way of getting food into the mouth. By the end of the 19th century, it even became necessary to give forks a wide, sharpened flange to allow them to do the knifework on cakes and pastries. As an etiquette manual of 1887 observed:

'The fork, insolent and triumphant, has become a sumptuary tyrant. The true devotee of fashion does not dare to use a spoon except to stir his tea or to eat his soup with, and meekly eats his ice- cream with a fork and pretends to like it.'

None of the stages of this remarkable ascent was accidental; each was a response to a desperate human need and the limits of the available technology: only when it was possible to manufacture a strong, curved fork could the spoon be set aside: straight, sharp tripods were hopeless when push came to shovelling. But it is in one sense a disappointing story: Petroski is not able to name names. The development of forks - a magnificent mixture of tine-refinement and odd angles - seems like a steady corporate endeavour, not a series of brainwaves.

Still, it does allow him to draw the contrast that drives the entire book. It has often been supposed by design gurus that 'form follows function' - that the perceived need conditions the nature of the gismo we come up with. This is obviously true in the case of the various different shapes and sizes in which hammers come - wide mallets for slogging stakes, compact tappers for tacks, focussed bludgeons for whacking in nails, and so on. But in other respects the formula is hokum. The Chinese want to put food into their mouths just as keenly as we do, and they are not less clever - but they prefer chopsticks. They have worked hard to develop the perfect chopstick - the square end so it won't roll off the table, the smooth, easy- on-the-mouth tip. All kinds of social and aesthetic considerations collaborate with basic functional needs. Why else would Chinese saws cut on the pull stroke, when our own cut on the push?

Petroski's view is that failure, not necessity, is the mother of invention. Inventors are provoked into seeking improvements by the flaws in what already exists. Edison once said, after making heavy work of making light work: 'I failed my way to success.' Petroski is anxious to promote the image of careful, repetitious labour over any melodramatic flashes of inspiration: he shows us pictures of the different attempts to clip paper together without tearing it, and names the makes - the Konaclip, the owl-style clip, the Niagara, the Rinklip - until the gorgeous culmination arrives: the Gem.

This is the paperclip we all bend and unbend - a 1958 survey estimated that only three out of 10 paperclips are used for their intended purpose - exploiting to the full what one writer called 'its bravura loop-within-a-loop design'. We get through about 20 billion of the little things every year, and no one knows the name of the guy who invented them. Let's all raise a glass, next time we clean our fingernails with a paperclip, to William Middlebrook of Waterbury, Connecticut, who on 27 April 1899, a day that will surely live forever, patented a paperclip machine the product of which was 'a perfectly proportioned Gem'.

Something like a revelatory flash also attended the birth of the Post-it note. A chemical engineer called Art Fry, who worked for the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M), was a keen chorister. He was fed up with bits of paper fluttering out of his hymnal, and vowed to devise a sticky pagemarker. He was in the right place: 3M made lots of sandpaper, and had experimented with different types of adhesive. The rest is history, though not, sad to say, his story. Why couldn't they have been called Fry's notes? Why isn't there a statue of Art Fry, hymnal in hand, pages securely marked, in the mezzanine of the head office?

Petroski is a historian, not a futurist, so it is perhaps unfair to expect him to consider the likely consequences of contemporary labour-savers. He includes a run-of-the-mill discussion of the difference between push button phones and the old numbered dials, but does not, for instance, mention fax technology. There would seem to be more than enough to go on in this area. It is already starting to seem that the fax is the saviour of the literary culture. It encourages us to write and read over the phone lines rather than talking and listening all day long.

The telephone killed off a precious literary genre - the collection of letters. The collected answering machine messages was never going to be an adequate substitute. But the collected faxes - now we're talking. Of course, fax paper doesn't last, so perhaps the evolution of this particular gadget is still awaiting a fresh infusion of creativity. Even so, it seems a pity that Petroski, hungry for data, flinches from the fax. Perhaps he feels it is worth a book to itself.

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