Engineering Thoreau: The Theme for Our 2019 Annual Gathering

Annual Gathering 2019: Engineering Thoreau

Engineering Thoreau:  Nature, Technology, and the Connected Life

Today, people don't ordinarily associate Thoreau with engineering, but many of his contemporaries made this connection. In his eulogy of Thoreau, for instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that he felt the loss of his friend's "rare powers of action" so keenly that he could not "help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party." Henry Francis Walling, one of the best cartographers of the nineteenth century, was more generous, noting in his map of Concord in 1852 that he had relied on "Surveys by H.D. Thoreau, Civ. Eng."

Walden Pond Survey

Thoreau pencilsHenry Petroski, our keynote speaker for this year's Annual Gathering, will explore Thoreau's legacy to the field of engineering, in part by focusing on his work at Thoreau & Son, the family's pencil-making business, which flourished in Concord from its founding in 1823 until Thoreau's death in 1862. Thoreau & Son was celebrated for its high-quality pencils, which were especially prized by artists after Henry developed a new way to mix plumbago, more commonly known as graphite, with clay to make the pencils much harder than the smudgy ones that had previously dominated the American market. Branching out from pencils, Thoreau & Son also supplied the growing demand for graphite used in the making of galvanized batteries and in electrotyping, a process for copying coins and printing with metal plates.

Thoreau & Son pencil

Of course, Thoreau can't be confined to any single profession, even one as broad and multifarious as engineering. In 1847, in response to an inquiry about his doings since his graduation from Harvard ten years earlier, Thoreau replied:

I don't know whether mine is a profession, or a trade, or what not. It is not yet learned, and in every instance has been practiced before being studied... It is not one but legion. I will give you some of the monster's heads. I am a schoolmaster, a private tutor, a surveyor, a gardener, a farmer, a painter (I mean a house-painter), a carpenter, a mason, a day-laborer, a pencil-maker, a glass-paper-maker, a writer, and some-times a poetaster. If you will act the part of Iolaus, and apply a hot iron to any of these heads, I shall be greatly obliged to you. My present employment is to answer such orders as may be expected from so general an advertisement as the above. That is, if I see fit, which is not always the case, for I have found out a way to live without what is commonly called employment or industry, attractive or otherwise. Indeed my steadiest employment, if such it can be called, is to keep myself at the top of my condition, and ready for whatever may turn up in heaven or on earth.

Ricketson, Thoreau drawingThoreau also labored, as he wrote in Walden, as a "self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms," which required him to act as a "surveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes, keeping them open, and ravines bridged and passable at all seasons, where the public heel had testified to their utility.” In another update of his resume, this time in reply to an inquiry he received from Spencer Fullerton Baird, the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution, he described his professional pursuits as "Literary and Scientific, Combined with Land-surveying.” But he later acknowledged in his journal that his answer did not reflect his true occupations:

"Now though I could state to a select few that department of human inquiry which engages me – & should be rejoiced at an opportunity so to do – I felt that it would be to make my-self the laughing stock of the scientific community – to describe or attempt to describe to them that branch of science which specially interests me – in as much as they do not believe in a science which deals with the higher law. So I was obliged to speak to their condition and describe to them that poor part of me which alone they can understand. The fact is I am a mystic – a transcendentalist – & a natural philosopher to boot. Now I think of it – I should have told them at once that I was a transcendentalist – that would have been the shortest way of telling them that they would not understand my explanations."

The Thoreau Society Annual Gathering, July 10-14, 2019

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Some of Thoreau's tools

 

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