More Than 200 Years After Its Invention, The Pencil Is Still Something To Write Home About


July 14, 1991|By William Ecenbarger

"We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders." -- G. K. Chesterton

Consider the pencil. The ubiquitous, yellow (mostly), 7-inch, two-for-a-quarter lead pencil -- the simplest, most convenient, least expensive of all writing instruments. The most useful, least appreciated, most stolen article in the world. Servant of poet and banker alike. Mightier than the pen or the sword. Nevertheless, the pencil is taken for granted -- as though it had no mystery, no background, no wonder.

The pencil is, perhaps, man's closest approach to perfection. The modern pencil can draw a line 35 miles long, write an average of 45,000 words and absorb 17 sharpenings. It is nearly weightless and totally portable. It deletes its own errors but does not give off radiation. It doesn't leak and never needs a ribbon change, isn't subject to power surges, and is chewable. Any legal document that does not expressly forbid it can be executed with a pencil.

The pencil has many ancillary uses -- lubricating stuck zippers, stirring cocktails, twisting tourniquets, cleaning pipes, propping windows and scratching backs. Perhaps the most unusual use was developed by columnist Ann Landers, who once advised young women that the way to determine whether they need to wear a bra is to place a pencil horizontally beneath one of their breasts; if the pencil falls to the floor, you don't need a bra.

About 1.9 billion pencils were turned out by the 17 American manufacturers last year. About 50 million pencils were purchased by the federal government last year; but the largest concentration of pencils is found on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where 1 million pencils were reduced to stubs last year.

The pencil's simplicity emerges from great complexity. Thousands of people participate in the making of a single pencil, using some 40 raw materials from all over the world. But very few of these people know they are making a pencil, and not one of them could make a pencil alone.

Pencils are made in most countries (the estimate is that 14.4 billion were produced worldwide last year), but less than 3 percent are imported into the United States. The Japanese, the Germans and even the Russians are in the pencil business, but they haven't made a dent in the U.S. market. American negotiators at the SALT-2 talks in Geneva in 1980 noticed that each day the freshly sharpened "U.S. Government" pencils they placed at the bargaining table were missing by the end of the session. They finally discovered that the Russian delegates were taking the pencils, and one of them confessed: "Ours don't work very well, and they don't have erasers."

No one person invented the pencil, but the pencil as we know it today was developed and marketed in the village of Stein, near the ancient German city of Nuremberg, in 1765 by Casper Faber.

AS EVERY SCHOOLBOY AND schoolgirl ought to know, there is no lead in the lead pencil -- though until about 1970 there were traces of lead in the paint on the pencil. The "lead" of the pencil is composed chiefly of graphite and clay -- the more clay in the mixture, the lighter the imprint of the pencil, and the higher its number. A No. 1 pencil is darkest and has the least clay. The modern pencil is erroneously called a lead pencil because the finders of graphite some 400 years ago noted that it marked like lead.

Bags of graphite are mixed with water, and the resulting doughy material is pushed through a machine that makes spaghetti-like strands that are dried and baked in an oven.

The process is industrially efficient but considerly less romantic than the way they used to make pencils. The clay used to come from Bavaria, not far from Casper Faber's original plant, and its quality was so high that just before World War II American pencil manufacturers stockpiled it for drafting pencils needed to design ships, planes, and other military hardware. After the war, Bavarian clay was one of the first items to be shipped out of occupied Germany. But today the Bavarian mine is nearly depleted, and there are some who think the Georgia clay is better.

Until about 20 years ago, the graphite and the clay used to be mixed in tumbling machines with flint pebbles, the finest of which were found only on the beaches of Denmark. The egg-sized pebbles were selected individually by beachcombers, who were paid 5 cents each for them. But the development of the kneading machines put the beachcombers out of work.


telling where the wind comes from

open a story.


telling where the wind goes

end a story.

These eager pencils

come to a stop

only when the stars high over

come to a stop.

-- Carl Sandburg, "Pencils"

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