skip to Main Content

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.” H.F. 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.”

blankHenry Petroski, our keynote speaker for this year’s Annual Gathering, planned to explore Thoreau’s legacy to the field of engineering, but was unfortunately obliged to cancel due to health issues. While wishing him a speedy recorvery, the Thoreau Society has arranged for a distinguished panel to discuss this year’s theme, “Engineering Thoreau:  Nature, Technology, and the Connected Life.” The panelists will undoubtedly draw on Petroski’s delightful book, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, which includes an insightful chapter on Thoreau’s work at Thoreau & Son, the family’s pencil-making business. Founded in Concord in 1823, the company provided the family with a modest but comfortable living 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 grind and process plumbago, more commonly known as graphite, to make the pencils much harder than the smudgy ones that had dominated the American market. Branching out, 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.


blankIn his memoir of Thoreau, Emerson brought up these improvements in pencil-making, not to extoll his friend’s talent for innovation, but to chide him again for his lack of ambition:

“His father was a manufacturer of lead-pencils, and Henry applied himself for a time to this craft, believing he could make a better pencil than was then in use. After completing his experiments, he exhibited his work to chemists and artists in Boston, and having obtained their certificates to its excellence and to its equality with the best London manufacture, he returned home contented. His friends congratulated him that he had now opened his way to fortune. But he replied, that he should never make another pencil. “Why should I? I would not do again what I have done once.” He resumed his endless walks and miscellaneous studies, making every day some new acquaintance with Nature, though as yet never speaking of zoology or botany, since, though very studious of natural facts, he was incurious of technical and textual science.”

Like more recent critics, Emerson seems to have been unable to grasp Thoreau’s refusal to 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, he replied:

blank“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… 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. 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.”

Thoreau also labored, as he wrote in Walden, as a “self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms,” a job that 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 a questionnaire 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.”

blankHowever, he later acknowledged in his journal that this answer did not reflect his true occupations:

blank“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.”

blankPost by Thoreau Society member Susan E. Gallagher, updated 7/8/2019


Get news from the Thoreau Society and learn about ways you can help preserve Thoreau Country as part of our common heritage and as the embodiment of Thoreau’s landmark contributions to social, political, and environmental thought.

The Thoreau Society®, Inc.
341 Virginia Road, Concord, MA 01742
P: (978) 369-5310
F: (978) 369-5382

Educating people about the life, works, and legacy of Henry David Thoreau, challenging all to live a deliberate, considered life—since 1941.


Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Back To Top