The magic of pencils
Here's a riddle: 'I am taken from a
mine, and shut up in a wooden
case, from which I am never released, and yet I am used by almost
everybody. What am I?' For those who know it, the answer is
obvious: a pencil. Yet it was not always that 'everybody' used
this simple, everyday item. While today we rarely notice a
pencil except when we can't find one to use, it was once an item
to be hoarded, to be used carefully, to revel in the possession
My heightened awareness of pencils comes to me courtesy a
book called (not surprisingly) The Pencil by Henry Petroski.
While I would argue with certain elements in the author's style,
as this is not a review of the book, I will confine myself to
sharing my delight in knowing more about this humdrum but
wondrous instrument that I have used for so long in my life that
it is difficult for me to remember the first time I used one, or
to imagine a world without pencils in it.
Yet that's how it was before the mid-sixteenth century.
Till that time, when the need arose to make marks which were less
permanent than those made by ink, amongst the instruments of
choice was a length of lead wrapped in paper or string to protect
the user's hand from being blackened. Devices created to hold
a bit of lead sharpened to a point so as to produce a fine line
were called 'plummets'.
Besides plummets, other choices included
waxed tablets made in wood, stone or ivory, the surface of which
could be scratched with a stylus to leave a mark. Other metals,
such as silver, would leave a mark on papers treated with chalk
to take a faint impression and a drawing thus created was called
But the shortcomings of these materials were plentiful
enough that in 1565, a German-Swiss naturalist and physician
called Konrad Gesner thought that a 'stylus ... made for writing,
made from a sort of lead (which I have heard some call English
antimony) shaved to a point and inserted in a wooden handle' was
an interesting enough instrument to include in his book about the
shapes and images of fossils. He obviously recognised the
advantages of such a device over conventional pen and ink for
taking field notes from nature.
The mysterious material he calls
'English antimony' had been discovered in what would be called
the Borrowdale mine, in the sheep-farming region of Cumberland
in England, whence it was supplied to a pencil-starved world.
The true chemical nature of the substance was determined only as
late as 1779 and the name 'graphite' coined a decade later, from
the Greek graphein meaning 'to write'.
The Scottish poet Robert
Burns is said to have scratched a poem into the glass window pane
of his hotel room using the diamond in his ring, little guessing
that the lowly cousin of his carbon-based gemstone would become
the commonplace writing implement for generations of poets and
others in the centuries that lay ahead.
Borrowdale graphite was mined in chunks which then had to
be shaped and fitted into grooves cut into slender strips of
cedar-wood. The excess was planed away, and the groove glued
over with another strip of wood, then the whole assembly was re-
shaped to create a pencil circular in cross-section. Demand soon
When, in 1793, war broke out between England
and France, the supply of graphite failed completely. A 39-
year- old engineer and inventor called Nicolas-Jacques Cont
was commissioned by the war ministry to develop an alternative
to pure English graphite. He pioneered the technique of mixing
graphite dust with clay and baking the result, which remains at
the heart of the process by which pencils continue to be made to
this day. Today's graphite is mined and manufactured around the
world, averaging about fourteen billion pencils a year.
As the author reminds us throughout the book, the paradox
of a pencil is that to use it at all, we must necessarily discard
the greater part of its mass. The very value of the mark it
makes is that it is not permanent, that it is erasable. In this,
we might find certain parallels with our own existence.
in which the graphite core of our selves is encased is time; the
paper on which our lives are written is the world. Unlike the
ink in which the exploits of the famous are recorded, our own
marks may be erased. But that does not make those marks, at the
time that they are made, any the less precious, any the less
Illustration: Dominic Xavier