Friday, October 26, 2012

Industrial notebook

At first glance writing about writing a notebook might seem to be a mundane boring subject. It is probably more boring than eating a good meal with a friend in your favorite restaurant, but very much less boring than watching paint dry or trying to remember something you should have written down. I'm sure most of the people reading this article have at least a collection of notes and sketches that are too good to throw away. Maybe your organizes and keep it all in a box or better yet a binder. If this sounds like you then read on.

In the late eighties I started keeping an industrial notebook. I think the habit started when I was taking some math classes at the local community college and got rid of the standard school loose leaf binder. Later on the idea was further driven home when I was involved with several patent applications and the need for documentation of the projects and inventions I was working on. For me my personal notebooks are a place with no rules, where I can jot down a thought or explore an idea or simply keep track of something I'm working on. Even today with the fantastic electronic devices available to us I still find a need for the paper notebook format. One of the engineers I work with and I frequently discuss the difficulty of capturing all the different types of information that come into our possession and how we can organize them and keep track of the valuable bits. My industrial notebook is one just one part of my personal information storage and retrieval system.
Why bother keeping a pen and pencil notebook in modern times? A few names come to mind, Henry ford, Leonardo da Vinci Hewlett and Packard and Michael Faraday to name a couple that few will doubt the value of their note keeping efforts. This article is by no means meant to imply that I'm even from the same planet as these guys, only to illustrate that people can learn something from history. So it looks like from history some really smart guys think writing stuff down is a good idea. My wife told me when I was writing my book that if you only write half a page a day, in a year you will have a good book.

We have quite a few electronic options available to us today, but I would argue that few have the simplicity, reliability and versatility of the lowly pen and paper. My version of the industrial notebook is just a simple continuum of thoughts and observations related to my current interests and projects that happens to end up on paper. The content of these notebooks cover every style of writing from notebook, logbook journal and diary to shopping lists for parts and materials. Officially each of these is a different type of note keeping with its own rules, format and content. I'm not much for the rules of the road with my note keeping. The things I put in notebooks are mainly for me, so whether someone else can follow what I'm up to is not as important as writing it down in the first place. Someone said, "The faintest pencil line is worth a thousand times more than the best memory." Sometimes all I'm doing in my notebooks is talking to myself by asking questions in sketches and by the act of recording the dialog to paper for possible future use.
I actually keep three types of notebooks because one system doesn't quite work for everything. The only difference in the notebooks are their size and location. Smallest of these is the wallet notebook. Second in size is the phone notebook. And the largest is the letter sized notebooks you see in the pictures. Of the three the wallet size is the only one I always have with me, at least if I have my pants on. The phone notebook is always on my desk near the phone and is used to jot down names and notes during phone conversations. Try writing an electronic sketch down on your cell phone while your talking on the same phone. I'm sure there is a way but I cant figure out how to do it as easily as I can with a pen and paper. For the large size book I have two running at any given time. One is supposed to be strictly for job related information, and the second is for my personal projects separate from my daytime job. Sometimes the lines get blurred and there is cross pollination between books but the main goal is to write ideas, thoughts and observations down somewhere to preserve them for future reflection and retrieval. The large notebook is the most important and valuable and the subject of this article. Inside the front cover I always put my contact information and the fact that I will pay a reward to get the book back.
In this picture is a small project related to motorcycles. I had forgotten about this little job until I cracked open the notebook to this page. I had a problem with the oil filler on one of my motorcycles that I created a special funnel for. The funnel had an adapter on it that screwed into the crankcase hole and let me put a bottle of oil into the funnel. I could leave it there until it drained fully without spilling any oil. The page on the right is a study of a set of blind spot mirrors that screwed into the ends of the handlebars for the same bike. Looking through these older books stimulates me and makes me want to head to the shop right now and built something. All this work was mostly forgotten until I opened the beaten up notebook to take a couple of pictures. The memories of the work flooded back reading the notes and looking at the sketches and pictures.
These entries are some photographs of a set of pyramid style sheetmetal rolls I designed and built back in 1996. I don't think anybody I knew saw the value of a digital camera back then. I had a computer but digital camera's were a bit of a rarity in the crowd I was in. Those were the days of film Fotomat and double prints please.
Another ancient entry. This was a small four inch rotary table project. It has the slightly unique feature that is reads angles in decimal degrees instead of degrees, minutes, and seconds. I remember thinking, my calculator gives me back decimal degrees why not make the rotary table decimal also and save the conversion. I still have this little table and use it fairly regularly.
Jumping forward in time. Here are some of the beginnings of the wabble drive featured in a separate article on this blog. The sketch on the left hand page has nothing to do with the drawings on the right hand side. This illustrates how the human mind jumps from one thing to another. These sketches were pasted into the main notebook from a loose leaf page so they are captured in one place or more. Most likely I didn't have the main notebook handy to doodle in so I wrote it down on whatever was at hand. If you follow a few general guidelines its pretty amazing how much you capture that might have been lost over the course of a project.
This photo shows a couple of cut sheets from a bearing catalog and some layout sketches. When working on a design its annoying to have to pull out the catalog or find the PDF again on the computer so I save the trouble and paste in the pertinent related pages so I have them in context with what I might use them for. These pages are design studies for the large etching press project. More on that as the blog develops.

Some advantages of the old school notebook method of information capture. Linearity of information is one of the most significant advantages of the notebook format. Notebooks by the nature of how you enter information show the progression and timeline of thoughts and the development of ideas. Drawings of any object can be made to fit in the pages of the notebook regardless of the scale of the item. In other words you can put a diagram of the solar system on one sheet or show the interaction of atomic nuclei, the choice of scale is automatic. A simple sketch with a mixture of text is easy in a notebook. Sketches saves pages of written descriptions and are my notebook language of choice.

Paper bound notebooks come in all manner of sizes from wallet, desk and letter. There is a size and style to fit all personality types and modes of carry. Notebooks are small, lightweight and requires no battery life or log on passwords. Archivally they can be excellent. Not as good as stone tablets but we can still read Leonardo's notebooks hundreds of years later as proof of the longevity of information storage. When is the last time you accessed data stored on an old floppy disc? Could you if you needed to? Have you ever had to have data retrieved from a hard drive after a malfunction? This is not to say that paper notebooks are fail proof. Your dog could actually eat one if they felt like it. Water and fire are bad for notebooks, but their also bad for computers and cell phones. I'll chalk that one up as a tie.

I rarely use an eraser in my notebook. If possible I use ink pen for as much writing of text, and as many drawings as I can. For complicated drawings I may use pencil to get the drawing looking right. One of my personal maxims is, Ink makes you think. I had a math tutor once that never carried a pencil, let alone an eraser. One day at the math lab I mentioned that it was pretty impressive that he used a pen only rolling equations off the end with hardly a thought. He told me something right then that has come true for me a thousand times since. He said he didn't use pen because of his mastery of mathematics and lack of errors, the reason was the exact opposite. If you use pen you cant really easily erase anything, so if you get stuck you can go back and see where you went wrong.  If you use pencil and erase your "mistakes" then you cant see the road you took to get where you are. And the worst thing is sometimes you are right when you think you are wrong. Committing ink to paper causes a small pause because of that pesky inability to erase. That small pause is actually you focusing your power of thought. He told me he had picked up the habit from a Physics instructor. At the beginning of the semester they all started a lab notebook. Their work output and quality were judged on the sole content of their lab notebooks. At the end of the semester if your lab notebook was only half filled with crud you got a half filled cruddy grade.

The act of writing ideas down causes me to think about what it is I am describing. That short pause as the pen or pencil touches the paper solidifies the though. I don't burden myself with a bunch of rules for putting something in the notebook they are more like suggestions. But I do have a few suggestions I try to be consistent with.

Notebook suggestions. Pages are never removed, date entries whenever possible, use as much pen as possible, never loan out your notebooks (like your toothbrush), review them regularly, no lower threshold on size or perceived importance of entries, never ever sweat spelling.

A few thoughts on reviewing what you write down. If its worth writing down its probably worth reading again.The chronological sequence of thoughts in a notebook once reviewed often leads to the next leap in the process. It also keeps you from barking up the same old trees again and again, or maybe finding that one tree you have been looking for.

People ask me how did I find time to write a entire book while I was working all the time. The answer is that I'm always writing a book of some sort. The harder part was organizing the useful bits so that somebody else would find it useful.

Further reading if you like the idea of keeping an old school notebook. Suggestions for keeping a lab notebook. My favorite type of notebooks. Try it for a year. Just a page here and there. Once you fill one and look through it again I think you will understand the allure and usefulness of the paper and pen notebook. So get cracking and start one today.


  1. Tom, I write this with admiration and inspiration. Your work and communication thereof gets my creative juices flowing.

    I have your first book and call upon it frequently. Now, you may be surprised by how happy it made me to find your blog yesterday. Keep the good stuff coming!

    I'm also very envious of your new shop space. I hope you will have a "nickle tour" blog entry some day soon. Maybe when you have all the important elements in place...

  2. Hi J,

    Thanks for the words of encouragement. I like your idea for a shop tour post on the blog. I'll get to work right away.

    Thanks again.


  3. Hi, I like your posts. Can I ask what size is this wallet notebook you talk about?

  4. Hi Thomas,

    The wallet notebooks that I have been using are made by Rhodia. They measure 3 x 4.75 75mm x 120mm and are printed with graph squares and side stapled. I have a larger wallet so these may not work for many people.

    Thanks for the comment

    Tom Lipton

  5. I love this post. I should hand it out to all the people who get at me for having 'too' many notebooks.

    1. Hi Cait,

      Thanks for the comment. Don't listen to those non notebook types. Nothing like pen on paper and the look of the written word.



  6. I'm a software engineer (~7 years now). About 2 years ago it occurred to me that I should be keeping a notebook (wish I had started this from the very beginning!). In Software Engineering, the field is too deep (and wide) to not keep a running notebook of ideas, thoughts, architectures, things that have worked, things that have not worked, etc. I've used emacs and org-mode for this for a while now, but as I read this post, I'm seeing value in trying my hand at a physical/notebook type system (especially when it comes to drawings, which occur quite often when discussing design & systems).

    I just wanted to say thank you for this blog post (and your blog in general). I find these odd parallels between what you describe in your work as a machinist, and what current software engineers tend to do. Fascinating, actually.

    1. Hi Unk,

      In this day and age its still difficult to find the one unifying way to keep track of all your physical thoughts and ideas. No one format seems to work. Computers lack the spontaneity of paper and pencil. The best electronic method I have tried is an electronic sketching app. Now it doesn't allow you to paste in random scraps of paper or catalog cutouts etc. If you are diligent in your notebook it becomes a living thing. Thanks for the comment.



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