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The Engineering Mind of a Literary Legend

Was the famous lover of Walden Pond a philosopher or an Engineer? Maybe both!

Henry David Thoreau is best known as a philosopher, a naturalist, a poet, and an author. While he appreciated nature and experimented with simple living, evidence also exists of a keen interest in engineering related matters. After his graduation from Harvard he worked as a surveyor around Concord. Plats he prepared and the instruments he used can still be seen at Museum of Concord Antiquarian Society and at the Thoreau Lyceum.

His philosophical exploration of "deeper" things had a more physical side also. Contemporary local legend has it that Thoreau's beloved pond was bottomless. One winter, when its surface was frozen hard, Henry David purposed to investigate this for himself. He laid out several grid lines and at intervals along these cut holes in the ice and took soundings. With exactitude he established that, although quite deep, this lake did indeed have a bottom. Copies of the data he recorded on a map he prepared at the time are available at the Lyceum. The keenness of his observations and the precision in this recording, both in writing and graphics, suggest an engineering mind of the highest order.

His technical skills were vital in the family business of manufacturing lead pencils. The typical product of the day left much to be desired. Thoreau made a careful investigation of the processes and materials used in the industry. Through research he was able to develop a much-improved writing instrument. Some of his pencils may be seen today at the Lyceum. Unfortunately, his prolonged exposure to graphite dust in the course of this work aggravated his 1862 bout of tuberculosis, hastening his death that year at age 44.

- John P. Wier, P.E., R.P.L.S., Historical Chair, Fort Worth Branch ASCE, May 2001

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