Henry Petroski


On his book The Toothpick: Technology and Culture

Cover Interview of January 01, 2009


Businesses, like the humans who conceive and develop them, have life cycles.  The story of the wooden toothpick industry, especially as established by Charles Forster and continued for a century after his death, is a prototypical case study of a business beginning, growing, maturing, and declining.  In the case of the toothpick industry, its story mirrors that of so many contemporary businesses faced with issues of foreign manufacture and global competition.

The value of a case study of a simple manufactured object is that its very simplicity makes the lessons that can be drawn from it more simply and readily demonstrated.  The more complex a product or industry, the more facets of the story there are to confuse and confound.  Yet whether simple or complex, an object and its industry face fundamentally the same issues relating to mechanization, raw materials, quality control, marketing, new product development, supply and demand, competition, and every other aspect of making products and doing business.  The simpler the product, the simpler it is to articulate lessons.  That is not to say that the lessons themselves are simple, for they are as relevant to automobile manufacturing as they are to toothpicks.

© 2009 Henry Petroski