Sunday, June 1, 2014

Engineers & Their Pocket Protectors (2014)

Engineering History

Pocket Protectors at NASA: Henry Petroski writes for American Scientist: “The scene in NASA’s Launch Control Center just after the Apollo 11 liftoff: big smiles, crisp shirts and ties, and a lot of pocket protectors. Featured above are, left to right, Wernher von Braun (with binoculars); George Mueller, associate administrator for the Office of Manned Space Flight; and Lt. Gen. Samuel Phillips, director of the Apollo Program.”
Photo Credit:  NASA

An article, by Henry Petroski,  in American Scientist gives an overview of the pocket protector, which came to be defined as a nerd accessory worn by engineers. When I was in engineering school in the late 1970s and early '80s, many students wore pocket protectors to hold not only pens, mechanical pencils, but also micrometers and other small tools of the trade. No one wore short-sleeved white shirts, but some did wear white sports socks, including me. All were earnest and hard working, true to stereo-type, but not everyone wore glasses. I didn’t then.

Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, writes (“Rise and Fall of the Pocket Protector;” May/June 2014) in the magazine's latest issue that the plastic pocket insert typically worn on the left side does not conjure up a positive image of “cool.”
The pocket protector has long been associated with engineers, but to society at large it does not necessarily evoke a positive image. According to Jeanette Madea, whose brief history of the pocket protector appears on the IEEE Global History Network website (, the plastic pocket insert “conjures up images of a guy in a short sleeve white shirt, glasses taped together and ‘high-water’ pants.” Those reference points date the characterization to the 1950s and 1960s, when engineers did indeed favor white short-sleeve shirts, eyeglasses that were prone to break across their plastic bridge, and pants hitched up to reveal a lot of sock, often white to match the shirt. Today, we call the professional descendants of the earlier stereotypes nerds or geeks, terms that at least can include gals as well as guys.

Madea credits the “original pocket protector” to inventor Hurley Smith, who was born in 1908 in Bellaire, Michigan. Smith had no formal schooling but completed high school by correspondence course. After working and saving money, he matriculated at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. He studied electrical engineering at Queens, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, and upon graduation had to take a job marketing Popsicles around the province. He finally found a position as an engineer with a transformer design company in Buffalo, New York, but lost this job when he refused to misrepresent the company’s rewound transformers as new products.

While working in Buffalo Smith came up with the idea for his pocket protector, which he patented in 1947. The time was ripe for such an invention because the ubiquitous fountain pen was notorious for leaking ink, as was the ballpoint pen then being introduced in America. According to Smith’s patent, it was not only the pocket proper that his invention protected from being “marked, disfigured or soiled by pencils or other more or less analogous articles or the fingers of the user in placing such articles in and removing them”; it also protected the material of the shirt directly above the pocket. Smith did not associate the device solely with engineers, whose fingers might be expected to be fairly clean, but also with “workers in factories,” the hands of which “may become soiled or greasy.”

As described in the patent, the manufacture of Smith’s pocket shield began with an elongated and relatively thin rectangular piece of “transparent or translucent Cellophane, Celluloid or analogous sheet material” just a bit narrower than a typical shirt pocket. The sheet was given two transverse folds. The first fold was made about equidistant from the ends, and the second—a reverse fold—about a quarter of the way from one end to produce a flap. This produced a pocket insert whose longest portion projected above the top of the pocket and whose shortest hung outside the front of the pocket. Pens or pencils clipped over the flap compressed the shirt pocket material between the flap and part of the shield inside the pocket, holding the protector and its contents securely in place. As Smith pointed out, the lightweight but stiff shield would incidentally prevent a pocket from “bagging or sagging out of shape and detracting from the neat appearance of the shirt or garment.” By clipping writing utensils over the flap, the protector also prevented wear and tear on the edge of the pocket.
If the other students at McGill University considered us nerds, I was not aware of it, since we were all too busy working hard on our endless assignments, projects and lab work to consider the existence of this question. Truly, we were for the most part oblivious to it and the standards of cool. I do, however, remember a moment when I did look across the wide expanse of lawn one exceptionally sunny and warm day in mid-April during the exam period; I had exited the engineering library to go outside for some air, to collect my thoughts, and when I looked across the wide expanse of green, there were sounds of laughter and play adjacent to the Arts Building and the Leacock Building, home to  non-engineering students, non-science students. They looked and acted carefree and without a worry in the world.

You can read the rest of the article at [AmerSci].

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