a book about the pencil

the pencil petroski

“all made objects owe their very existence to some kind of engineering…” from the preface of “the pencil: a history of design and circumstance” (1989) by henry petroski \  a very engaging history of the invention of this common & ordinary object / petroski highlights the evolution of engineering from its roots in the trades practiced by master craftsmen & builders

i have fond childhood memories of pencils / the school year in the philippines begins in june <which also marks the start of the rainy season> \ weeks before school starts, my mother would come home with school supplies including boxes of mongol pencils <pictured above> / in the late 40s, the philippines, hong kong & india were the primary markets for american products, including pencils \ “mongol” as a brand name & yellow as the desired finish were used to associate with the orient | in the late 1800s, graphite from siberia were considered to be the finest

the earliest illustration of a pencil was from the german-swiss physician & naturalist konrad gesner’s book of fossils published in 1565 <pictured above, the one with latin words | he died of the plague in the same year> he writes “The stylus shown below is made for writing, from a sort of lead (which I have heard some call English antimony), shaved to a point and inserted in a wooden handle.”  \ gesner’s illustration was reprinted in a 1648 book but aldrovandi, another naturalist, called the pencil’s lead “lapis plumbarius” or lead stone instead of “stimmi anglicanum” \ keswick & cumberland <borrowdale> in england were the only sources of this main ingredient and was known by many other names:  plumbago, black lead, kellow/killow, wad/wadt, black-cowke, kish, crayon noir / its name settled to “graphite” <from the greek graphein, to write>

a turning point in the history of the pencil was the process of mixing graphite <after being removed of impurities> with clay & firing at high temperatures & then encasing the lead in wood \ this process was developed & patented by nicolas-jacques conte in 1795 / and was a matter of necessity | high quality graphite from borrowdale was unavailable in france \ conte’s knowledge of plumbago for making crucibles in which to melt metal was also instrumental in this innovation <knowledge of materials science> / the alternative method of the germans <mixing graphite dust with sulphur & glue> made inferior but serviceable pencils

skipping to another interesting point in the pencil’s history sees the involvement of henry david thoreau better known as the american philosopher, transcendentalist* & poet, author of walden and resistance to civil government \ his family business, using the conte process <of which thoreau was instrumental in researching & implementing> successfully produced & marketed pencils but they later abandoned this to the more profitable business of selling graphite powder <to be used for the recently invented process of electrotyping>

the book is quite comprehensive in covering pencil production from its origins to its continual improvement as new materials & new processes were developed | innovations in the product itself, its design & marketing | domestic pricing as well as the global trade & market for pencils | and even its known use among famous writers such as steinbeck & hemingway \ i also especially like the section where the author describes the skill of drawing various perspectives <orthographic projection> that the modern engineer needs to learn  <i fondly remember my engineering friends & roommates in college and their ES11, i think it was called 🙂 >  this is a very interesting, informative & highly engaging book, worth a read

i found this book while looking for one about fountain pens / but i like wood-encased pencils too so this was a nice find \ *potentially interesting book to read would be about american transcendentalism

2 thoughts on “a book about the pencil”

  1. Chapter 17 “Getting the Point and Keeping It” is about sharpening the pencil. 🙂 Norman Rockwell’s painting “His First Pencil” shows a grandfather-like figure showing little boy how to sharpen a pencil with a penknife


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