Jumping to Conclusions
An author is haunted by avoidable factual errors that end up in print.
By Henry Petroski
William Barclay Parsons was the engineer who designed the first New York City subway system, which ran north from City Hall in Lower Manhattan. In his retirement, he engaged in scholarly pursuits, including the writing of his magnum opus, Engineers and Engineering in the Renaissance. He himself was a Renaissance engineer, and I thought of him as capable of achieving anything.
Although Parsons was not involved in the design of the subway line that ran out of Manhattan and into the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, for a long time I assumed that the Parsons Boulevard station near the end of the F line was named after him. I even wrote as much in my book on America’s infrastructure. I did not have a reference to back up my claim, but I did not think I needed one. After all, I had grown up in New York and rode the F train frequently through the Parsons Boulevard station in Queens.
I was thus quite surprised when I received an e-mail message with the subject line stating “slight correction offered.” It was from Jerry Freidman, a Boston engineer who grew up near Parsons Boulevard. He informed me that the street was named not for William Barclay Parsons but for Samuel Parsons, a noted landscape architect. Several of the Parsons family nurseries had been located in parts of Queens through which the eponymous boulevard now runs.
How easily I had been drawn into error by assuming the engineer who designed New York’s first subway was the same person a station on a subsequent line was named for. I was always looking for connections between engineers and the common culture—Port Eads, Louisiana; Port Jervis, New York; Kirkwood, Missouri; and other places named throughout the nation and the world after engineers—and I was all too eager to believe I had found another one. Fortunately, most readers will probably pass over my false attribution, not remembering it, and no harm will have been done. However, I fear that some reader may take my book as authoritative and cite it as the source of the history of Parsons Boulevard’s namesake.
There was a time when readers were alerted to an error in a book by an erratum sheet pasted into it. That could be done by the publisher for copies that had not yet been distributed. But my book was published three years ago; neither my publisher nor I know everyone who bought a copy or possesses one now and hence to whom to send an erratum sheet.
It also used to be the case that typographical and factual errors could be corrected in subsequent printings of a book, much as news stories are corrected and updated on the Internet today. Ironically, in my experience, large commercial publishers who wanted to get things right were more amenable than scholarly university presses to making such corrections.
I have always felt that teaching has one great advantage over publishing, in that a mistake made in today’s lecture can be corrected in the subsequent one, which under normal circumstances should not occur more than a couple of days or a week away. Of course, this required me to become aware of my error in a timely fashion. Now and then I would realize my mistake long after the lecture was ended. Other times, a quiet student would approach me after class and ask me to clarify a point, which proved to be erroneous.
But what of an error discovered long after it was promulgated? Even if I have a class roster from a course I taught years ago and attempted today to contact all the students who took the course, I suspect few would have taken such detailed notes as to misattribute the name of a subway station to an engineer.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski