My Father’s Engineering Notebooks

September 15, 2010

It must have been sometime around my thirteenth year that my Mother put the strong-arm on Father to improve himself. In those far off days this took the form of night school. A form of educational anguish that involved dragging oneself off to lectures and laboratories at a local technical school after one had already put in a day’s work. He was in his late thirties or early forties. Not the best time to start taking university level classes, perhaps? But he was not alone. After the war many men who had gone into technical work found it harder and harder to keep up without some kind of diploma serving as paper foundation to their careers. It also meant that many winter evenings we were both crouched resentfully over our respective homework, struggling. He with algebra, geometry, the strengths of materials, draughtsmanship, engine rating; he was an engineer; and me with mathematics, chemistry and physics.

At that time a favored method of instruction was for a teacher or master to deliver a fairly high paced lecture on a particular theorem or topic. Students would take pencil notes in ‘rough’ which would then be transferred to ‘fair copy’ in a notebook that could be summoned for marking. The fair book would be written in fountain pen along with diagrams in pencil. When I understood the lesson and knew the work my fair copy was neat enough. At other times it was atrocious.

My Father eschewed the pencil and took his rough notes in fountain pen. But his fair copy was text-book quality; neat, precise, and legible. His cursive penmanship was strong and easy on the eye, his engineering drawings were clean, with few erase markings, and lay on the page in the best place to illustrate the text. It impressed me terrifically. I am sure he went through agonies to get it so. I could not. He may not have gotten good marks for getting theorems correct or the right result of a long and arduous calculation involving quadratic equations and tables of logarithms, but no-one could have remarked poorly on the clarity of his work and desire to be understood. 

I do not really know if my Father was sentimental or not. He was of a generation that did not give much away. He did not keep those note books long after he took his exams and became qualified. Perhaps living in small houses with children and tiny closets does that to one. There were many things that he discarded that I wish he had kept. His notebooks were very personal and almost works of art. They told me much more about his character than anything else.

I doubt that it necessary for him to produce his work in quite so archival a form to achieve his diploma. But for him it was. It was a part of his desire to ‘get it right’ first time, no questions asked, no follow-up needed. Bull’s-eye shot. His world of working class men struggling up the unseen but very tangible ladder to an imagined middle class security was full of intricate forms and trip wire questions the wrong answer to which would send you sliding down a virtual snake to the bottom of the professional and perhaps social pit. Even in post war England with enormous changes occurring in the social and class structure by the week, some old habits died very hard, and some barriers remained formidable, and seemingly permanent. Accent, school and birthplace; the giveaways that enable an interviewer, shopkeeper, bank clerk, petty official or neighbor to pigeon-hole the individual and confidently apply some irrational prejudice to the moment of interaction and any further. My dear nervous, shy, stuttering; yes he had and had defeated a serous stutter; regionally accented Father, my Father sought to neutralize these threats by being accurate, precise, and getting it right.

 The latter-day shadow of his desire lives on in me. I detest forms, am suspicious of any uniform, am anxious to make a good first impression, loathe imprecision, and get excited whenever I see good handwriting or an attractive example of a technical diagram with explanatory text. But I do not stutter and my handwriting remains, ordinary.

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