Whatever Chuck draws, the result is neat, clear, and interesting. His techniques are equally so, as a close examination reveals. The drawings are usually executed first in pencil, and then finished in ink. I hesitate to say "traced," because the ink lines follow rather than exactly overlay the light pencil ones. Sometimes, after the ink has dried, he erases the pencil lines. These are techniques I learned in mechanical drawing courses in high school and in college as an engineering student, and seeing them used by a master brings back fond memories of those days at the drafting board.
A letter from Chuck is hard to miss in the mail, for the envelope is always addressed with either elaborate calligraphic flourishes or fancy and whimsical artwork. He does not consider himself an artist, and so when he draws cartoons of people or animals he often traces them from some source, such as a magazine. He also employs a lot of color on his envelopes, as he does on the drawings inside them. He typically uses either colored pencils or watercolors; something that was commonly done in nineteenth-century engineering drawings, making the best of them truly works of art.
I often wonder whether the postman sorting our mail stops for a moment to enjoy Chuck's entertaining envelopes. They may be but small packages among the plethora of slick and heavy mail-order catalogues that clog our mailboxes nowadays, but they always carry the distinct mark of being hand-addressed and hand-drawn -- hand-designed -- and that alone makes them something to admire among all the computer-generated and personalized impersonal material. I know that I stop to admire a Chuck Siple envelope before I open it, and I open it carefully so that I can preserve it along with its always interesting contents.
With the near-ubiquitous adoption of computer graphics, a meticulous draftsman like Chuck Siple may be a thing of the past, but to me his eye for detail keeps him as perceptive a critic of design as he ever was. Though he has the hands of a draftsman, he has the mind of an engineer. Computer-generated drawings may be the new standard, but I doubt that any graphics program will ever become an engineer's pen pal.
Nice article, Professor Petroski. I, too, was a paperboy. It was the early 1960s. I remember delivering the paper announcing Kennedy has been shot. I'd get to my pile of papers at about 4:30 a.m. and fold each one before filling my canvas sack. If you folded them tight enough, they stayed together when they landed on the front porches or sidewalks. I'll never forget the fold. It didn't work for the Sunday papers, though.
Reading this article, I have a clear picture in my mind of what these envelopes must look like. It makes me long for the days when I would go to the store and buy a new box of pretty, crisp stationary. I'm sure "pen pals" still exist, but not by snail mail. "sigh."
Drafting talents like Chuck's are hard to come by today. When I started out as an engineer, the company I worked for had a very talented, non-degreed engineer/draftsman named Franz who drew beautiful oblique views of bridges of all types. The drawings were so good that I've kept some for more than 30 years. His work was actually inspiring because he took what was a science (to the rest of us, at least) and turned it into an art.
This waxing sentimental brings back so many memories – Architectural Rendering in High School; 3-point perspective drawing; My first job as a Detailer in a Tool&Die shop in 1978;remembering to always slowly twist the pencil between your thumb & finger to avoid generating a flat (caused inconsistent line widths!) Descriptive Geometry & Spatial Relationships.Each of these things was a specific blend of talents in Art & Technology.Thanks for the memories; so much of this is a lost art that so few ever heard of, let alone could ever appreciate!
At present, I am not sure if board drafting is still being taught in schools which is actually kind of sad. However, I have shown my kids the finer points of drafting. I pulled an old drawing board from a dumpster of a closing company and set up my own drafting station in my work shop. I do full engineering style drawings of any wood project that I work on. I also do my best to introduce my kids to the 1/8" dashes seperated by 1/16" space to mark a hidden line. They look at me like I am crazy, but I still enjoy it.
Like everyone else, i have always admired Petroski for his design genius but his language skills in explaining the engineering thoughts are also commendable. As Wittgenstein said that the limits of one's language the limits of the world, it is important to have language skills to express and explain the engineering view. Every time i read Petroski i am motivated by his language skills. I know this comment may not be related to the topic , but still i felt like paying tributes to his writing skills.
In high school we had basic and advanced mechanical drawing, and even architectural drawing and rendering.In those days, one worked very hard just to qualify to enter the Illinois Institute of Technology drafting competition.To win any kind of an award would be an honor, indeed!
With the emphasis on using CAD to produce drawings, we are losing the hand-eye-brain interconnection; a way to get the "feel" of an object, and to have one's mind sense the object's shape, construction, and texture.In the same way, learning cursive writing refined that very same hand-eye-brain interconnection, aiding not only clear writing, but clear thinking.
I am not a Luddite who might say down with CAD, texting, or word processing.I understand the utility of, and use these systems, but I do see this as a further erosion of the "humanness" of communication.
I believe that learning to sketch and to write clearly, prepares one's mind to understand the observer's world before trying to improve it.I further believe that learning these skills should remain in the engineering curriculum.
I was never very good at drafting. I remember taking a class in high school and I always smudged my drawings. I actually don't remember if we had a mechanical drawing class in college. Don't think so since I was a EE major. On my first job, we had a whole area of about 20 draftsman. Like one of the commenters said below, these were all non-degreed guys who probably migrated to the field after WWII or Korea via trade schools. I admire the skill and I enjoyed Henry's column. I usually lament the passing of older technologies -- I'm still a big vacuum tube fan -- but in the case of drawing I don't see that much has been lost by the shift from pencil to CAD.
I started as a designer and then an engineer on the drafting board. I wasn't a good draftsman, so I embraced CAD with a passion. Even with a template I could rarely letter well. For me the thing I miss is the art, and it truly is an art, of a sophistacated cutaway drawing. Road & Track magazine had at least two illustrators of superb skill. I loved the details. I have always been a 3D guy, thinking and visuallizing my projects well. However I was always jealous of the skill of being able to draw those cutaways! Our CAD machines and programs will produce a perfect sectional drawing but it is not the same. The summit of the old school cutaways I have seen is the cutaway of the Rolls Royce Crecy piston engine. I don't believe the draftsman even signed it, but he should have it was a thing of beauty. It is appropriate that it was the best cutaway I know of as the Crecy was pretty much the pinnacle of piston engine design circa 1945. The jet engines replace those big aircraft piston engines, but are not as technically interesting, to me at least. The CAD era produces more technically correct drawings, but they will never be as interesting as the hand inked cutaways. Bill J
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