The perfection of the pencil
Clay, graphite, cedarwood, glue—and two centuries of convergent evolutionBy John Ryle • 11 November 1990 • The Independent • The Pencil: A history by Henry Petroski • Posted 2016 • 1,018 words
In that lowly drawer, the one with the log-jam of dried-up fibre-tips and leaky fountain pens, empty ballpoints and broken wax crayons—all the state-of-the-art writing technology of yesteryear, shored up by rubber bands and paper-clips, stick-glue and drawing pins—somewhere there in the mass of bric-a-brac are dozens of examples of that supremely user-friendly drawing and word-processing device, the pencil.
Pencils are different from the rest. They don’t go wrong. They are leak-proof, cheap, long-lasting, ever-ready, needing only a twirl in the sharpener or a swift whittle with a knife to be up and running. They give the drawer that pleasant whiff of cedarwood. And they are legion: 14 billion manufactured every year, according to Henry Petroski in this magnificently obsessive book.
Is this possible? Three a year for every person on the planet? We must all take our share of the responsibility. There are at least half a dozen yellow Berol Mirados in that drawer (formerly Mikados, the name de-orientalised after Pearl Harbor) and a brace of stern-looking black Harris Commercials. There are wasp-like black-and-yellow Staedtlers, a dark green Venus drawing pencil (the kind with the mock-crackle-glaze finish and chewable, white plastic, dodecagonal tip). There is a marbled pencil from Taiwan and a nameless giant that is striped like a barber’s pole. There is a yellow Tru-Arrow—handmade, it is somehow pleasing to learn, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana.
There are pencils with teeth-marks, pencils charred by fire; there is a broken Koh-I-Noor that has been splinted with matchsticks and bandaged with sticky tape (somebody must have loved that pencil, unless they had no other). There are hard pencils and soft pencils, running the gamut from 4H to 3B. There are anonymous stubs barely half an inch long, their erasers nibbled and ground down into the brass ferrule, leaving a pink stump like a tiny amputated limb; and a brace of flat-tipped uncircumcised seven-inchers—virgin pencils that have yet to feel the touch of the knife.
I have no idea how this writerly arsenal was assembled; I don’t recollect actually buying any of them; I think some must have come with the desk. But knowing I could pick up any one of them and write with it any time is an odd pleasure. Pencils are not only reliable, they are also, crucially, rubbable-out, one end undoing the work of the other, both ends slowly vanishing towards the middle (that is if the pencil has an eraser, though pencil erasers generally do not last as long as pencil leads). Until the advent of computer-generated text, the pencil was the preferred instrument of the perfectionist, father of the second thought, the realigned beam, the mot plus juste.
(There are still a few things you can do with a pencil that you can’t do with a computer—tighten a tourniquet for example. And you can’t chew a computer keyboard while thinking about the sentence you are writing, though some may have tried. And there is not yet a computer small enough to put behind your ear.)
Why pencils are hexagonal
Over three centuries wooden pencils have evolved into a surprisingly standard shape: seven inches long and a quarter inch in diameter. The only difference, apart from the hardness of the lead, is whether they are round or hexagonal in section. Hexagonal pencils outsell round ones by 10 to one, at least in north America. Is this because they don’t roll off the desk? Or because they sit more securely in the hand? Apparently not. Geometry dictates that nine hexagonal pencils can be got out of one slat of cedar, but only eight round ones. So they are cheaper to make, though not to buy. The pencil industry is built on such economies. (John Steinbeck claimed that hexagonal pencils hurt his fingers, but most of us, apparently, luckily for pencil-manufacturers, prefer this shape.)
The graphite pencil was a British invention. For most of the seventeenth century the only source of this soft, dark, greasy, lustrous allotrope of carbon (aka black-lead, or plumbago) was a mine at Borrowdale in Cumberland, where it was used for marking sheep. But it was a Frenchman, Nicolas-Jacques Conte, deprived of pure Cumberland plumbago during the Napoleonic wars, who developed the graphite powder and clay mixtures, now standard, which enable control of the hardness and durability of pencil leads.
In the mid-nineteenth century a huge graphite deposit was discovered in Siberia, near the Chinese border. Baron von Faber, a pencil manufacturer from Nuremberg, bought the rights in the mine and painted his pencils imperial yellow to symbolise their oriental origin. From this period date German pre-eminence in pencil-making and the ubiquity of the yellow finish (six out of 10 pencils are this colour). Faber and Staedtler, another Bavarian Bleistiftmacher, both set up factories in America. There they came into competition with the Thoreau Pencil Company, which was founded by the transcendentalist’s father (Thoreau fils, to Petroski’s chagrin, did not write anything about pencils, though he used one to write Walden Pond).
Engineer Petroski is the Vitruvius of his subject; this big book tells us all we could possibly want to know. The only pencil lacking here is the blue pencil of the editor. But let’s not cavil about that. This book is a labour of love, a song of praise for the nameless technicians whose dissatisfaction with the imperfections of early pencil technology drove them to refine and redesign the thing until it reached its present state of grace.
Pencil leads are not made of lead, nor are pencil rubbers made of rubber; the penknife is now a pencil-knife; words lag behind their referents. But pencils do not change. Pencils have reached perfection. (Or have they? I could imagine one or two improvements. Maybe a pencil you could sharpen on a stone, or with your teeth?) So let us join Engineer Petroski in praise of Nicolas-Jacques Conte and the anonymous engineers and designers who came after him. And the miracle of the mass market that has put this elegant object within reach of every person on the planet. ★