Friday April 2, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Pencil
On this Day:
In 1827, US inventor Joseph Dixon of Salem, Massachusetts, began manufacturing lead pencils. However, erase the thought that this was the first that was written about pencils.
A pencil is an implement for writing or drawing, constructed of a narrow, solid pigment core in a protective casing that prevents the core from being broken or marking the user’s hand.
Pencils create marks by physical abrasion, leaving a trail of solid core material that adheres to a sheet of paper or other surface. They are distinct from pens, which dispense liquid or gel ink onto the marked surface.
Most pencil cores are made of graphite powder mixed with a clay binder. Graphite pencils (traditionally known as “lead pencils”) produce grey or black marks that are easily erased, but otherwise resistant to moisture, most chemicals, ultraviolet radiation and natural aging. Other types of pencil cores, such as those of charcoal, are mainly used for drawing and sketching. Coloured pencils are sometimes used by teachers or editors to correct submitted texts, but are typically regarded as art supplies, especially those with cores made from wax-based binders that tend to smear when erasers are applied to them. Grease pencils have a softer, oily core that can leave marks on smooth surfaces such as glass or porcelain.
The most common pencil casing is thin wood, usually hexagonal in section but sometimes cylindrical or triangular, permanently bonded to the core. Casings may be of other materials, such as plastic or paper. To use the pencil, the casing must be carved or peeled off to expose the working end of the core as a sharp point. Mechanical pencils have more elaborate casings which are not bonded to the core; instead, they support separate, mobile pigment cores that can be extended or retracted (usually through the casing’s tip) as needed. These casings can be reloaded with new cores (usually graphite) as the previous ones are exhausted.
Pencil, from Old French pincel, from Latin penicillus a “little tail”, originally referred to an artist’s fine brush of camel hair, also used for writing before modern lead or chalk pencils.
Though the archetypal pencil was an artist’s brush, the stylus, a thin metal stick used for scratching in papyrus or wax tablets, was used extensively by the Romans and for palm-leaf manuscripts.
As a technique for drawing, the closest predecessor to the pencil was silverpoint until in 1565 (some sources say as early as 1500), a large deposit of graphite was discovered on the approach to Grey Knotts from the hamlet of Seathwaite in Borrowdale parish, Cumbria, England. This particular deposit of graphite was extremely pure and solid, and it could easily be sawn into sticks. It remains the only large-scale deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form. Chemistry was in its infancy and the substance was thought to be a form of lead. Consequently, it was called plumbago (Latin for “lead ore”). Because the pencil core is still referred to as “lead”, or “a lead”, many people have the misconception that the graphite in the pencil is lead, and the black core of pencils is still referred to as lead, even though it never contained the element lead. The words for pencil in German (Bleistift), Irish (peann luaidhe), Arabic (قلم رصاص qalam raṣāṣ), and some other languages literally mean lead pen.
The value of graphite would soon be realised to be enormous, mainly because it could be used to line the moulds for cannonballs; the mines were taken over by the Crown and were guarded. When sufficient stores of graphite had been accumulated, the mines were flooded to prevent theft until more was required.
The usefulness of graphite for pencils was discovered as well, but graphite for pencils had to be smuggled. Because graphite is soft, it requires some form of encasement. Graphite sticks were initially wrapped in string or sheepskin for stability. England would enjoy a monopoly on the production of pencils until a method of reconstituting the graphite powder was found in 1662 in Italy. However, the distinctively square English pencils continued to be made with sticks cut from natural graphite into the 1860s. The town of Keswick, near the original findings of block graphite, still manufactures pencils, the factory also being the location of the Derwent Pencil Museum. The meaning of “graphite writing implement” apparently evolved late in the 16th century.
Around 1560, an Italian couple named Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti made what are likely the first blueprints for the modern, wood-encased carpentry pencil. Their version was a flat, oval, more compact type of pencil. Their concept involved the hollowing out of a stick of juniper wood. Shortly thereafter, a superior technique was discovered: two wooden halves were carved, a graphite stick inserted, and the halves then glued together—essentially the same method in use to this day.
The first attempt to manufacture graphite sticks from powdered graphite was in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1662. It used a mixture of graphite, sulphur, and antimony.
English and German pencils were not available to the French during the Napoleonic Wars; France, under naval blockade imposed by Great Britain, was unable to import the pure graphite sticks from the British Grey Knotts mines – the only known source in the world. France was also unable to import the inferior German graphite pencil substitute. It took the efforts of an officer in Napoleon’s army to change this. In 1795, Nicolas-Jacques Conté discovered a method of mixing powdered graphite with clay and forming the mixture into rods that were then fired in a kiln. By varying the ratio of graphite to clay, the hardness of the graphite rod could also be varied. This method of manufacture, which had been earlier discovered by the Austrian Joseph Hardtmuth, the founder of the Koh-I-Noor in 1790, remains in use. In 1802, the production of graphite leads from graphite and clay was patented by the Koh-I-Noor company in Vienna.
In England, pencils continued to be made from whole sawn graphite. Henry Bessemer’s first successful invention (1838) was a method of compressing graphite powder into solid graphite thus allowing the waste from sawing to be reused.
Pencil manufacturing. The top sequence shows the old method that required pieces of graphite to be cut to size; the lower sequence is the new, current method using rods of graphite and clay.
American colonists imported pencils from Europe until after the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin advertised pencils for sale in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729, and George Washington used a three-inch pencil when he surveyed the Ohio Country in 1762. It is said that William Munroe, a cabinetmaker in Concord, Massachusetts, made the first American wood pencils in 1812. This was not the only pencil-making occurring in Concord. According to Henry Petroski, transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau discovered how to make a good pencil out of inferior graphite using clay as the binder; this invention was prompted by his father’s pencil factory in Concord, which employed graphite found in New Hampshire in 1821 by Charles Dunbar.
Munroe’s method of making pencils was painstakingly slow, and in the neighbouring town of Acton, a pencil mill owner named Ebenezer Wood set out to automate the process at his own pencil mill located at Nashoba Brook. He used the first circular saw in pencil production. He constructed the first of the hexagon- and octagon-shaped wooden casings. Ebenezer did not patent his invention and shared his techniques with anyone. One of those was Eberhard Faber, which built a factory in New York and became the leader in pencil production.
Joseph Dixon, an inventor and entrepreneur involved with the Tantiusques graphite mine in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, developed a means to mass-produce pencils. By 1870, The Joseph Dixon Crucible Company was the world’s largest dealer and consumer of graphite and later became the contemporary Dixon Ticonderoga pencil and art supplies company.
By the end of the 19th century, over 240,000 pencils were used each day in the US. The favoured timber for pencils was Red Cedar as it was aromatic and did not splinter when sharpened. In the early 20th century supplies of Red Cedar were dwindling so that pencil manufacturers were forced to recycle the wood from cedar fences and barns to maintain supply.
One effect of this was that “during World War II rotary pencil sharpeners were outlawed in Britain because they wasted so much scarce lead and wood, and pencils had to be sharpened in the more conservative manner – with knives.”
It was soon discovered that Incense cedar, when dyed and perfumed to resemble Red Cedar, was a suitable alternative and most pencils today are made from this timber which is grown in managed forests. Over 14 billion pencils are manufactured worldwide annually. Less popular alternatives to cedar include basswood and alder.
In Southeast Asia, the wood Jelutong may be used to create pencils (though the use of this rainforest species is controversial). Environmentalists prefer the use of Pulai – another wood native to the region and used in pencil manufacturing.
On 30 March 1858, Hymen Lipman received the first patent for attaching an eraser to the end of a pencil. In 1862, Lipman sold his patent to Joseph Reckendorfer for $100,000, who went on to sue pencil manufacturer Faber-Castell for infringement. In 1875, the Supreme Court of the US ruled against Reckendorfer declaring the patent invalid.
Historian Henry Petroski notes that while ever more efficient means of mass production of pencils has driven the replacement cost of a pencil down, before this people would continue to use even the stub of a pencil. For those who did not feel comfortable using a stub, pencil extenders were sold. These devices function something like a porte-crayon…the pencil stub can be inserted into the end of a shaft…Extenders were especially common among engineers and draftsmen, whose favorite pencils were priced dearly. The use of an extender also has the advantage that the pencil does not appreciably change its heft as it wears down.” Artists currently use extenders to maximize the use of their colored pencils (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
I’ve fallen in love with a pencil and decided to marry her. I can’t wait to introduce my parents to my bride 2B.
Second, a Song:
The Barenaked Ladies is a Canadian rock band formed in 1988 in Scarborough, Ontario. The band developed a cult following in Canada, with their self-titled 1991 cassette becoming the first independent release to be certified gold in Canada. They reached mainstream success in Canada when their debut with Reprise Records, Gordon, featuring the singles “If I Had $1000000” and “Brian Wilson”, was released in 1992. The band’s popularity subsequently spread into the U.S., beginning with versions of “Brian Wilson” and “The Old Apartment” off their 1996 live album Rock Spectacle, followed by their 1998 fourth studio album Stunt, which was their breakout success. The album featured their highest-charting hit “One Week”, as well as “It’s All Been Done”. Their fifth album Maroon, featuring the lead single “Pinch Me”, also charted highly. In the 2010s, the band became well-known for creating the theme song for the sitcom The Big Bang Theory.
Initially a duo of Ed Robertson and Steven Page, the band quickly grew to a quintet adding brothers Jim and Andy Creeggan and Tyler Stewart by 1990. Andy Creeggan left the band in 1995 and was replaced by Kevin Hearn. Page left in 2009, reducing the group to a quartet.
The band’s style has evolved throughout their career, and their music, which began as exclusively acoustic, quickly grew to encompass a mixture of an array of styles including pop, rock, hip hop, rap, etc. The band’s live performances feature comedic banter and free-style rapping between songs. They have won multiple Juno Awards and have been nominated for two Grammy Awards. The group has sold over 15 million records, including albums and singles, and were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in March 2018.
Snacktime! is a children’s-themed studio album by Canadian band Barenaked Ladies released on May 6, 2008 by Desperation Records. A companion book was written with artwork by multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hearn, who also contributed artwork for the album. It is the final Barenaked Ladies album to include Steven Page, who departed the band on February 25, 2009. He was subsequently quoted, saying of the album, “[i]t was a lot of fun to do, but it wasn’t my idea. I was along for the ride.”
Snacktime! reached number 10 on the Canadian charts and peaked at No. 61 on the Billboard 200. It also won a 2009 Juno Award for the Children’s Album of the Year (per Wikipedia).
Here are the Barenaked Ladies performing their song “Drawing” from the Snacktime! album. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“A #2 pencil and a dream can take you anywhere.” – Joyce Meyer
Ron Usher of Vancouver, BC, Canada writes in response to the Apple Computer Smile:
“Thanks, Dave, I have fond memories of my Apple IIE, purchased in Jan 1983. Over $5,000 with a Epson DM printer and a internal Hayes modem (300 baud). Sent away another UDS$500 for another 16 K of memory (to bring it to 48K) and a chip to show lower case letters (you had to solder it in yourself…)
A good investment as it got me going on computers and law. Dialling up Quicklaw was like black magic. My first search was for the word “encroachment,” – got back cases dealing with land and wills. Soon learned to frame better search queries. (As I was dealing with a house built partially on the neighbour’s land)
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky