SCIENCE
The Pencil: Humble and Trusty
By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
Chicago, IL

Ever since the man wanted to memorialize what he said, he has developed and made use of different instruments over time. Sharpened stone tools used by the caveman, to the Greek stylus to quill made of various materials, and recently the keyboard of your electronic devices. Somewhere in this long sequence fits your humble but trusty ‘pencil’.
Literally dime a dozen, they’re everywhere. Rather, almost everywhere now, as they give way, increasingly, to other instruments of writing. Still, when your fountain and ball-point pens run suddenly dry and your keyboard and its paraphernalia quit -- even as your thoughts are bursting to be spilled on paper or screen ---, you’ll have (hopefully!) a pencil lying nearby to record what you think the world needs to know.
On such humble but basic essential things and their evolution, at least one person has written some notable books. Henry Petrosky, a civil engineering academic who specializes in ‘failure analysis’ has written on industrial design and history of everyday objects, from pins, zippers, paper clips, forks and silverware, and, yes on ‘The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance’ (1990), as well as ‘The Evolution of Useful Things’: How Everyday artifacts From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers Came To Be As They Are’ (1992), ‘Small Things Considered: Why There is No Perfect Design’ (2003), ‘Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design’ (2006).
Let us get a few basic misconceptions out of the way. ‘Lead’ in the pencil evokes a series of lead-associated health risks, but the pencil lead is not really lead. It is actually a mixture of clay and graphite, and graphite is nothing but a crystallized form of carbon. Graphite was discovered in Keswick, England in the mid-16th century.
In the May 2007 issue of ‘Discover’, a science monthly, Dean Christopher has compiled some interesting things about the pencil:
A Greek poet, Philip of Thessaloniki , has referred to lead-writing instruments in the 1st century BC, but the modern pencil dates back to 1565, according to Swiss naturalist, Conrad Gesner.
It was an 18th century German chemist, A. G. Werner, who named it after the Greek ‘graphein’, to write. Pencil is derived from the Latin ‘penicillus’, meaning little tail. What makes pencil marks is when tiny graphite flecks (less than a thousandth of an inch wide) stick to the fiber that makes the paper.
An average pencil has enough graphite to draw a line about 35 miles long, or write 45,000 words, although this hasn’t been tried and confirmed yet.
The clay-graphite manufacturing process for pencil was patented by Nicolas-Jacques Conte` in 1795, and the first pencil-sharpener was patented by Bernard Lassimore in 1828, with an improved mechanical sharpener by Therry des Estwaux in 1847.
With pencil, you had to have the eraser. This came, courtesy of the French, who used a vegetable gum (caoutchouc), now known as the rubber to erase pencil marks. Before that, bread crumbs were used for the same purpose. While most US pencils have an eraser at the end, the European brands have none.
Among the famous pencil-users was Henry David Thoreau who wrote ‘Walden’ in pencil. He is believed to have even designed the pencils he used. Not all that exciting about it, when you consider the fact that his father owned a pencil-producing business near Boston .
The first American mass-producer of pencils was Eberhard Faber, which was in 1861 from his factory in New York City . Pencils were also part of the basic essential government issue to Union soldiers during the US Civil War.
Mechanical pencils were patented in 1822. The company that was founded by the British developers was doing well till 1941 when it was bombed out by the Nazis. In the former USSR after the 1917 Revolution, the monopoly for making pencils was awarded to the Russian-American entrepreneur, Arman Hammer.
More than half of the total number of pencils produced in the world come from China . In 2004, Chinese factories produced some 10 billion pencils, enough to circle around the world more than 40-times.
When pens don’t work, the pencils do. They can write in zero-gravity, and were used in early US and Russian space flights. NASA engineers had worried about the combustibility of pencil wood in a pure-oxygen atmosphere of the spacecraft, as well as the risk of floating bits of graphite. After the Apollo I fire in 1965, NASA banned pencils on manned space flights, and started using pressurized Fisher Space pen (named after its developer).
Pencils (sharpened) have been considered (maybe even used) as a lethal weapon. In his autobiography, G. Gordon Liddy (of the Watergate fame) mentions looking, once, for a sharpened pencil to drive into the throat of John Dean, the person he hated for “disloyalty.”
The largest pencil ever is Castell 9000, displayed at its manufacturer’s plant near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It is made of Malaysian wood and a polymer, and stands 65 ft high. On the opposite end, the tiniest one was developed by engineers at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Using as an atomic force microscope pencil, it can draw lines as small as 50 nanometer (or 2 millionth of an inch) wide.
Your humble pencil, even if you didn’t know it, has a rich history, and very few things are as dependable as your humble pencil is.


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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