The Pencil

After relying on pens for many years, I returned to pencils this year for all writing. I am so loving the minimalism of the pencil that I ended up reading the only book dedicated to this common writing instrument. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski is a book that looks at the evolution of human engineering in the last few centuries by using the pencil as an example.

The word pencil comes from peniculus, Latin for brush. That word itself is derived from penis, which as you may not know, is Latin for tail. For many centuries before the invention of the woodcase pencil, the word pencil was used for small brushes used to draw fine lines. Not surprisingly, the name was transferred to the woodcase pencil when it turned out to be perfect for this task.

Much like its erasable nature, the history of the pencil has not been as well recorded compared to that of the pen. A piece of coal or the burnt end of wood that early humans used to write on cave walls could be the earliest progenitor of the pencil. During the Roman period, metal styluses were used to write on wax tablets that were called pugillares. Soon, thin pieces of lead wrapped in paper came to be used to write on hard surfaces like wood or metal. Lead leaves a faint line, so various alloys of lead were tried to obtain a darker line.

Graphite, which is what is used in today’s pencils, was discovered in Cumberland, England in 156x. Shepherds who discovered it used it to mark their sheep and it soon became a replacement to the lead pencil. It was called black lead or wadd and was used by wrapping it in string or encasing it in wood or metal holders. This was both dirty and shaky to write with. Around 166x, Staedler and other wood workers in Germany encased square rods of graphite firmly in wood. The user would whittle the pencil with a pen knife as it wore off. This idea caught on and woodcase pencils started to be produced in England and Germany. The graphite was broken into sheets and then into square rods for the pencils. Good quality graphite was available only from Cumberland, and it produced the best pencils. Conte in France invented a method of mixing low-quality graphite powder and clay, rolling it and then firing them to form quality leads.

Across the pond in USA, family businesses like that of Thoureax (yes, the Thoreaux of Walden) ran family businesses around pencils and graphite (which was used for metalwork too). The principal difficulty was getting the graphite-clay mix right. Every pencil business kept their recipes secret, so new entrants had to keep reinventing the magic formula. Pencils of this time were mostly made from cedar wood. Pencils were sold unpainted until Koh-i-noor started selling theirs in bright yellow colors, which is the most common coloring of today’s pencils. England continued to use pencils of pure graphite until the Cumberland mine was spent. Germany continued to produce the best pencils and the American companied tried to compete on economy. With the industrial revolution, USA took the leap and created the machinery to make pencil production automated. Dixon and Faber were the most popular brands in USA and Europe at this time. While the American companies never ventured out, the European companies entered USA and competed fiercely. Mechanical pencils, plastic pencils and leads made of graphite and polymers were also invented.

The demise of the woodcase pencil has been called many times, but it survives even today. The pencil of today is made from 2 pieces of wood glued together with the lead encased in between. The lead is circular and the pencils are hexagonal, round or triangular.

The Pencil tries to describe the history of human engineering along with that of the instrument. The history, personal stories, engineering, business and branding of the pencil are quite fascinating to read. Henry does a good job of linking this to the changes in the style of engineering and products of engineering through the last few centuries. However, the book feels extremely verbose, and at half of its current 42x pages it could have been a very fulfilling read. Henry Petroski teaches at Duke University and has written a lot of books on the history and engineering of everyday objects. I am extremely curious about these things and so I will be keeping an eye out for his books.

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