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Miscellanea/Manjula Padmanabhan

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 of.

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 a 'silverpoint'.

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 outstripped supply.

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.

The wood 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 divine.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Manjula Padmanabhan

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