Sunday, June 11, 2006

Below the fold.

Petroski, Henry
3529 words
1 January 2005
American Scientist
Volume 93; Issue 1; ISSN: 00030996
Copyright (c) 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

About two years ago, I published in these pages a nostalgic article on folding and delivering newspapers-at least the way we paperboys did in the New York City borough of Queens in the mid-1950s (see "Engineering," May-June 2002). That article, and my memoir on the same subject, prompted an uncommon amount of mail from readers, many of whom hailed from different geographical locations and different times. Many of them had delivered newspapers in their youth, and most of them had dealt quite differently with the technological design problem of preparing the paper for tossing onto a subscriber's stoop or porch. The correspondence, which was often accompanied by samples of folded newspapers, reminded me of the variety of ways available to address any technological problem. Unlike in science and mathematics, engineering does not necessarily offer universally natural and certainly not unique solutions.

The commonly accepted laws of physics are the same everywhere in the world. If we speak of, say, Japanese science as opposed to U.S. science, we refer not to the underlying principles but to the cultural and sociological differences that govern styles of thinking and interaction among scientists. The truths of such culture-bound endeavors are universal and so the same no matter who the scientists are or where they are practicing. Cultural and even individual differences among engineers, on the other hand, can have profound effects on what is produced. Thus, some things made in China have a different look to them than things made to serve a similar purpose in America. They reflect the culture within which they were created. Automobiles made in Japan are recognizably different-though perhaps increasingly less so-from cars made in Sweden, Germany, France or Detroit. They are all automobiles, of course, but they represent different end results as manifested not only in styling and amenities but also in mechanical details and performance. They may exploit the laws of nature in different ways, but they are all immediately recognizable as automobiles.

Reading Above the Fold

Newspapers are also distinguished by their cultural origins, and not just in their language. We can see this whenever we travel internationally and sit among people of different cultures reading newspapers in different languages. We might note the incidental differences: Some newspapers are read horizontally and some vertically, some left to right and others right to left. Some use color in distinctive ways, and some rely on photographs more than others. Such differences allow us to distinguish from a distance the New York Times from the London Times, the Wall Street Journal from the Financial Times, Le Monde from der Spiegel, and USA Today from the New York Post. Still, whether they are tabloids or broadsheets, they all share common qualities that we recognize as the essence of newspaperness. We know a newspaper when we see one.

The act of reading a newspaper is also obvious and worldwide, but the styles of doing so are as varied as the papers themselves. Reading a tabloid is perhaps the easiest, in large part because its smaller size and single crease enable the paper to be kept more or less neat and compact, even when opened. Broadsheet newspapers are creased twice in the process of being made, which gives them not only a more collapsible geometry but also one that is more expansive when open. In crowded spaces, such as airplanes or other public conveyances, an open newspaper tends to encroach on neighbors. Readers solve the problem in a variety of ways. Some read only the front page of each section, forgoing the continuation of any story until they reach a place with more freedom of movement. Other readers fold the paper back on itself, a process that encroaches on neighbors only as long as the paper is opened full width to turn the page.

Readers in the New York City in which I grew up employed a special technique, one in which the broadsheet newspaper never had to be opened to full width. In this "New York fold," the paper was first creased lengthwise, thus reducing its width by half. In this configuration, pages could be turned in a much more compact manner, though one had to become adept at folding and refolding the paper back on itself to expose a story or its continuation. In a New Yorker article a few years ago, George W. S. Trow recalled being taught this "fairly complicated" technique by his father. Trow wrote that the skill, which he didn't think he had retained, "proved almost useless" to him. My experience has been different. Although it was developed for the crowded city subways, or so we believed, the urban fold has served me well whenever I have found myself in the middle seat on a fully booked air-shuttle flight.

Manifold Surprise

Perhaps Trow read but did not deliver newspapers as a boy. We often hear that once we master riding a bike, we never forget the skill. The same can be said of tying shoelaces, telling time and (for a paper deliverer) folding newspapers. When I have given talks about being a paperboy-they were all boys in my neighborhood, but as I was reminded by readers, not everywhere-I have often demonstrated the way we folded the papers not for reading but for delivery, and on not a few occasions members of the audience have come up to me afterwards and showed me how they folded their papers differently. Each of us could perform his own style of industrial origami in a flash, even with our eyes closed, but neither could easily follow what the other was doing. Reverse engineering a folded paper can be surprisingly confusing, since so much of what goes into the process is lost in the finished artifact.

This was made abundantly clear to me when I began to receive letters containing step-by-step instructions, drawings and curiously folded newspapers in the mail. If for no other reason than to compare their efficacy, I tried to replicate the foreign folds, but it was often difficult to do by just following some instructions or sketches or without unfolding the single example. This latter action was something I was reluctant to do, lest in the process of unfolding the paper I not only destroyed its special configuration but also left myself with no exemplar against which to check my own attempts. On more than one occasion, I had to write back for more explicit step-by-step instructions.

One correspondent whose drawings I had little trouble deciphering is Charles R. Siple, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area and who went on to be a patent draftsman. Siple recalled his father riding the streetcars to work and "when the seating was squeezed" folding the paper in a manner much like the New York fold recalled by Trow. In the 1930s, Siple was a "Press boy," delivering the final edition of the Pittsburgh Press each day, supporting the flat papers at his side with the aid of a strap and folding them as he walked his route. The simplest fold that he recalled reminded me of the one I used almost exclusively, but he also described two other folds that were totally new to me. One involves a final twist that tightens the paper; the other is a variation on a square fold that we used only when the paper had so few pages that the standard fold would not hold. Perhaps because of his background working with patents, which typically do not have physical models associated with them, Siple did not include examples of papers folded according to his instructions.

Another reader, J. Kenneth Smail, a professor of anthropology at Kenyon College, did not send drawings, but his written instructions were accompanied by examples of folded papers. According to Smail, his experience delivering the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the early 1950s involved using a "5 fold plus end twist" technique to prepare the papers for tossing onto porches. The steps in his folding procedure were:

1. Fold loose edge on right of paper over, about 4/5 of the paper's width (or a little less).

2. Fold this already-folded portion (see instruction 1) over once again.

3. Tuck/insert upper half of this doublefolded part into closed edges on left.

4. Twist bottom of paper to tighten tube (usually by inserting fingers).

I might never have deciphered this last step without the benefit of the finished product and Siple's drawings showing the steps in achieving his own twist fold.

Carl E. Locke, Jr., "threw papers" around mid-century in Fort Worth, Texas, before going on to become a chemical engineer and dean of engineering at the University of Kansas. He described delivering papers on foot, carrying them in a canvas bag slung over his shoulder and also folding them for just-in-time delivery as he walked from house to house. He delivered both the Forth Worth Press and the Star-Telegram, and he used different folds for each, as well as different folds for different days of the week, reflecting the different problems presented by the widely varying size of newspapers from day to day. All told, he used six different folds, which he called: square fold; Saturday fold; Press fold; Star-Telegram twist fold (which is distinct from the twist fold of Siple and Smail); Sunday fold; and screen fold. Collectively, they represented most of the variations I had been exposed to by readers.

Appropriate Folding

Ironically, for a medium that trades so heavily in words, narrative accounts of how to fold a newspaper are seldom effective: A picture is indeed worth a thousand words-and a finished product worth a thousand pictures. To describe his library of folds, Locke employed a newly gotten digital camera and created a PowerPoint presentation, which he sent to me via e-mail. By that time, I had seen just about all the folds in his repertoire, but the Press fold remained stubbornly elusive to me-until Locke sent me a further PowerPoint presentation, in which the fold was developed step by step.

As we know, the thickness of most American newspapers varies considerably from Sunday to daily, and it also can vary quite a bit from Monday through Saturday, largely depending on how many advertisements are carried. Because of the wide variation in thickness (and hence weight) of the papers (in my case, ranging from as few as 12 pages on a Monday or Saturday to well over a hundred on Thursdays, when sales were advertised), a fold that worked for one day's paper did not work for another. Hence Locke's range of folds: The Saturday fold was physically impossible to execute with a Thursday paper, and the Press fold impossible with the Sunday.

It was only on Mondays and Saturdays, when the paper could be very thin, that we who delivered the Long Island Daily Press departed from our standard daily fold and used a square fold instead. According to Dennis R. Morgan, who delivered newspapers in Cincinnati in the mid-1950s, paperboys in the Midwest might have "required an increased throwing range" because yards were somewhat larger than on the East Coast, so they found it "customary to 'box' the paper," which he described with the following instructions: "first fold once along the long edge, then into thirds, then bend down one side in an ear, and tuck the final third inside." According to Morgan, this resulted in "a compact 6'' × 6'' × 1/2'' projectile that could be accurately and reliably thrown 100 feet or more (imparting a spin for stability)."

The manner in which a paper was folded could also depend on the shape of the paper. Dave Gomberg, who delivered papers contemporaneously with me, wrote describing the "tomahawk fold" that was his paperboy culture's preferred one for thin papers. When I asked him to describe the fold, he set out to reproduce it with a recent issue of the San Francisco Chronicle but had first to trim it to the proportions of the papers he had delivered. According to Gomberg, a paper so folded "could be thrown well over 50 feet." Locke's "screen fold" superficially resembles the tomahawk, but it lacked a final tuck and so was a configuration that did not stay closed by itself. But that did not matter, since it was not designed to be thrown. Indeed, Locke reports having used the screen fold on rainy days, its pointed triangular shape being well suited to inserting the paper into the handle of a screen door, thus keeping it out of the rain.

The tomahawk fold was also used in the East Bay area of San Francisco in the 1950s, according to Wesley Schlotzhauer, Jr., a senior professor at DeVry University. He recalls more than just the folds, demonstrating how even the smallest detail of a technological system can play a significant role in the smooth functioning of the entire system:

We carried our papers in double bags with a poncho-style head hole. The bags were supported by both shoulders with one bag hanging in front of our chests and the other hanging down our backs. We stuffed the papers in the bags, alternating the base of the folded triangles up and down. On bicycle or on foot, we pulled out and threw the apexup papers [from the front bag], and then we reversed the bags and threw the apex-up papers from [the new front] "pouch." (New paperboys would frequently empty the front bag completely and then struggle desperately to overcome being choked due to the weight of the back bag pulling down.) When we had again half-emptied the now front bag, we reversed the bags again. Now there was room to get our hands "deep" into the bag and grab the down apex of the triangle. So it went until we had emptied both bags.

So as important as the folds that they used were, paperboys also had to be clever at carrying their loads. Joe S. Herring, a professional engineer, grew up in Rockport, Illinois, around 1950. Though he did not have his own paper route, he occasionally filled in for friends and remembers how the papers were prepared for delivery. Herring recalls that small editions of the Rockport Pilot were folded into "a flat, approximately square package which could be sailed like a Frisbee." Larger editions were not folded in the strictest sense. In this case,

Papers were typically rolled with the axis of the roll parallel to the main fold. Several turns of fine twine were then wrapped around the end of the rolled paper, and then the wrapped twine rolled to the center of the rolled paper. This twisted the several turns of twine sufficiently to secure it without any knot.

He also remembers that for larger routes the papers were carried saddle-bag style: in two bags straddling the rear wheel of the bicycle. According to Herring, the "dual rear bag arrangement made throwing the papers more efficient since the [rolled] paper could be picked out of the bag and thrown to the opposite side with the throwing arm following a single, smooth, arc, and with the choice of right or left hand throws depending on which side of the street the particular customer was located."

Another reader described wrapping not his papers but his bicycle tires with rope, in order to gain traction in the snow. Cliff Sayre, a retired mechanical engineering professor from the University of Maryland, anticipated his professional acumen by cutting off the handle of his wagon so that the shaft could be inserted into the throat of a spare bicycle fork, which in turn could be attached to the rear axle of his bicycle. In this manner, he could carry all the papers for his rather large and long route, even though they did not all fit into the basket attached to his handlebars. When he had to stop to replenish the basket with papers from the wagon, the bike was held upright by the attached makeshift trailer.

Folds, Old and New

Paper folding certainly predates paperboys. It is at least as old as the making of books. Bookbinding is essentially the sewing together of folded sheets. Printing itself involves considerable paper folding, and the very names of book formats refer to the number of times the printed sheets must be folded before binding takes place. Thus, a folio results when the sheets are folded once, a quarto when folded twice (producing four double-sided pages), an octavo thrice, et cetera. At least as early as the 18th century, print shop workers made a pressman's hat by folding a sheet of paper in origami fashion. These hats are believed to have helped keep hairs off of the inked type and wet paper, as well as keep the tacky ink out of the pressman's hair. Modern pressmen, working in large newspaper plants with rooms filled with massive presses, continue the tradition of wearing the hats.

Paper folding is also the subject of serious mathematical and scientific study, with applications ranging from packing airbags to compacting lenses to be launched into space. There is an emerging field of computational origami, which is also termed origami sekkei. The coding and information theorist David Huffman was a pioneer in this field of technical folding, and his folded paper figures remain strikingly elegant works of art. Former laser physicist Robert Land, who is now described as a computational origamist, has written a book on relevant mathematical methods and has developed appropriate software. The objective of much origami sekkei is to fold paper in such a way as to put no strain on it. The possibility of achieving such a configuration, which sometimes involves even curved folds, is an ideal that has relevance to the forming of sheet metal in the automotive industry.

But paperboys seldom if ever folded papers for any purpose other than delivery. And few if any considered the etiquette of folded newspapers, which of course had to be unfolded to be read. The more complicated and tight folds naturally creased and disfigured the papers more severely than the simpler ones. Overly tight folds could even result in the customer tearing the paper trying to open it. This appears to be what caused some customers to request (read, demand) that their papers be delivered flat, but they were in a distinct minority. The overwhelming majority of subscribers accepted their papers folded, just as we accept our letters folded in an envelope. There is, of course, a proper and an improper way to insert a letter or card into an envelope, and those who appreciate such distinctions can derive not a little pleasure in unpacking such a letter. It is nice to think that equally appreciative newspaper subscribers admired the properly folded paper that opened easily and presented for reading a minimally creased artifact.

To me, however, the folded newspaper is a metaphor for an engineering solution to a practical problem. There is virtually no science involved, but the projectile so formed follows the laws of physics as surely as does an intercontinental ballistic missile. No doubt, a science of newspaper folding could be developed, perhaps employing combinatorial topology or some other esoteric mathematics, but it would not likely capture the art and etiquette practiced and remembered so vividly by countless paperboys (and -girls) of a different era. Not all engineering needs science and mathematics to explain its mysteries or its realities.


I am grateful to the many readers-both those named in this column and those whose letters I did not have space to quote-who have shared with me their experiences folding and delivering newspapers. I am especially thankful to Charles Siple, who shared with me the pages of his memoirs containing his illustrations of how to make various paper folds. In addition, I am indebted to Jim McGill for the title of this column-and for sending me an example of a paper sack incorporating a strong and secure handle made with just three folds and a tuck.


Lang, Robert J. 2003. Origami Design Secrets: Mathematical Methods for an Ancient Art. Natick, Mass.: A. K. Peters.

Petroski, Henry. 2003. Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer. New York: Vintage Books.

Trow, George W. S. 1998. Folding the Times. New Yorker, December 28 and January 4, 1999, pp. 48+.

Wertheim, Margaret. 2004. Cones, curves, shells, towers: He made paper jump to life. New York Times, June 22, p. F2.

Petroski explores the different facets of reading a newspaper, which are as varied as the papers themselves. Among other things, he mentions that reading a tabloid is perhaps the easiest, in large part because its smaller size and single crease enables the paper to be kept more or less neat and compact, even when opened.


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