As I sit here on a bumpy airplane ride, traveling home from Electronic Design's annual editorial meeting, it seems somehow fitting that I should find inspiration at the sight of a paper napkin. Yes, that's right, I said a "paper napkin!" It was only a little more than 24 hours ago that my esteemed editorial colleagues and I had spent a resourceful lunchtime discussing the obvious contributions that such a rudimentary tool as the napkin gave to the engineering field.
As a lightweight, economical, easily findable, and easily transportable writing substrate, it has played a critical role in bringing together engineers and their thoughts. I would even venture to guess that it has played as crucial a role in the course of technological advancement as that of the mighty microchip itself. How many ideas have been spawned, engineering problems solved, and companies hatched on the back of a napkin?
I myself have resorted to its use on numerous occasions. As a college student, it came in handy as my fellow students and I mulled over especially brutal partial differential equations in the cafeteria. As an engineer out of college, it served as a platform for quickly sketching out potential circuit layouts for solar array panels. Even today, as an electronics editor, I find myself reaching for one every time a new story idea strikes me.
Some even come preprinted with cute catch phrases. The one I'm writing on now, for example, happily touts "Every Flight Counts." I wonder if its maker realized it would count in more ways than one. After all, thanks to this napkin, and an extra long flight, I won't have to stay up late writing this column. And, the two engineers in the seat in front of me might figure out how to dissipate the power in an especially crucial circuit design. Did I fail to mention that they have spent the better part of this flight sketching out possible solutions to this problem on the back of a napkin?
Of all the things I can say about a napkin, the most important is that it allows inspiration to be captured and recorded even when it strikes at the most unpredictable times and places. That's a pretty crucial selling point for engineers who often find inspiration in strange places.
For some, that inspiration may come to them in the shower or during those few precious moments just before they drift off to sleep. For me, inspiration arrives in the form of the most everyday mundane things in life, such as a napkin.
Each engineer's source of inspiration is different. Did I ever tell you about my friend who once solved an especially tricky design problem thanks to the sight of two bears fighting at the local zoo and a friendly concession-stand operator who willingly handed over a stack of napkins? I won't even try to explain what the bears had to do with the design. Suffice it to say that it's on just such occasions that the napkin has played an integral part in advancing the state of engineering for the better. If only napkin makers worldwide realized the true power of their invention!
I know I'm not the only one who understands and appreciates the true impact of the napkin. If you have a favorite engineering-related story to tell, send it along with some thoughts on where you find your inspiration.
In the meantime, I have come to suspect that the man sitting next to me is not an engineer. He seems genuinely perplexed and amused by my napkin antics. If only he knew the real link between napkins and engineers. I think I'll keep that little joyous pleasure to myself for just a bit longer. Please send me your own secrets.