Nowhere in the natural world is the concept of yin and yang more manifest than in the pencil. One end sharp, long and lean, and capable of writing 45,000 words. The other, compact, pink and pearl, and capable of correcting one’s mistakes.
But the pencil has something for everyone, not just the spiritual among us. For example, you may have wondered just how long a pencil can write before the lead (which is not actually lead but rather graphite, from the Greek word grapheim meaning to write) is down to the nub, or technically down to the ferrule, that metal contraption that fastens the eraser on the end. You see? Right there, something for the mathematician, the engineer, and the etymologist.
Back to our question: solving for P where P is the distance the pencil can write. We know from John D. Barrows of 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know that the computation involves nanometers, the width of carbon atoms, and the radius of the pencil lead. Again, not really lead. The answer might surprise you, especially if you’re not a mathematician. P = 150 π / 4 x 10-7 mm = 1,178 kilometers. That’s about 732 miles. Mr. Barrows hasn’t tested his formula — to this day it remains an essential thing he doesn’t know.
I cannot abide a dull pencil, and I’m not alone in my intolerance. I’ve heard author Roald Dahl lined up six sharpened pencils before he began writing each day. Not to compare, but John Steinbeck used as many as 60 pencils a day. I can imagine all 60 pencils lined up, and when one became too dull to carve out a character or a scene, he would toss it aside for the next. The other possibility is that each day he wrote 60 times 150 π / 4 x 10-7 mm. But I seriously doubt that.
Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s first rule of writing: “Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak.” The fact that she is Canadian explains why she misspells “airplanes,” but it doesn’t explain why she doesn’t bring her laptop. Personally I take more than one pencil on the plane. I’ve raced to the lavatory one too many times with ink exploding out of a pen onto my hands, my clothes, and the people sitting in the aisle seats.
That lead thing, seems we can’t let go of some antiquated ideas. History tells us the pencil was first used by farmers in northern England in the 1500s. Apparently a storm toppled over a tree, and the farmers thought the black substance that was exposed underneath the roots was a form of lead calledplumbago. But it was actually a form of pure carbon, and combined with clay, it makes a dandy pencil. Again for the etymologist, here’s a nod to plumbers everywhere.
The English farmers used the stuff to mark their sheep, but it turns out — and this is for historians — the Aztecs used pencils as markers long before the Brits. The Aztecs didn’t have domesticated sheep until Hernando Cortes arrived in 1519, so they must have been marking other things, like the number of days until the arrival of the god Quetzacoatl. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, they mistook Señor Cortes for Quetzacoatl and welcomed him without guile. Turns out, Señor Cortes brought plenty of guile to the New World.
Which brings me to another question. Most European pencils are manufactured without erasers. Does this mean Europeans are less likely to make mistakes? Or less likely to admit to them? I’ll leave this question to Eurocentric historians.
So we have the sheep-marking Brits — make that the Aztecs — to thank for inventing the pencil. Saying it was the Brits is a little like giving credit to Columbus for discovering the New World. But it is the military we must thank for the modern pencil, specifically a scientist in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. During Bonaparte’s large-scale blockade of Britain, pencils became scarce and threatened his campaign to conquer Europe. Enter Nicholas-Jacques Conte and his invention of graphite. Closer to home, pencils were popular with Union and Confederate soldiers alike — easier than carrying quills and ink bottles apparently. So a big thanks to the military-industrial complex.
It was Dwight Eisenhower who coined the phrase “military-industrial complex,” but I have no idea who said the following: “Erasure is about the correction of one’s mistakes — a lofty goal in life. Yet . . . the effort does not always succeed.” Who knows, Eisenhower could have said that, too, but this brings me to another question. Just how did erasers end up on the tops of pencils?
Turns out the first erasers to erase graphite markings from paper was bread. Yes, long before rubber erasers were invented, a loaf of bread was an essential office supply. A chap by the name of Hymen Lipman probably preferred his bread toasted and smothered with a layer of freshly churned butter. I’m just guessing about that, but Mr. Lipman definitely was the first to attach a rubber eraser to the top of a pencil. He was even awarded a patent for his invention in 1858.
Enter a German pencil manufacturer who used the ferrule to attach the eraser and challenged Mr. Lipman’s patent. Their claim was Mr. Lipman invented neither the pencil nor the eraser, he merely combined them. While the Supreme Court agreed with the Germans and revoked his patent, I choose to think Mr. Lipman was still quite proud of his accomplishment. After all, he must have been an optimist — he added a ¼ inch eraser to the top of a nearly eight inch pencil.
This brings me to the Dixon Ticonderoga pencil. While Mr. Lipman was unable to hold on to his patent, Dixon Ticonderoga Company was able to trademark the green ferrule that holds its celebrated pink pearl eraser.
The Dixon Ticonderoga pencil, by the way, was the favorite of Roald Dahl. He used a lot of them. Not, however, as many as Steinbeck. I can’t say for sure whether Ms. Atwood took Dixon Ticonderoga–brand pencils on her aeroplanes, but it’s entirely possible. And for me personally, there simply is no substitute for the long, lean lines of the Dixon Ticonderoga, America’s best-selling pencil. I might be making that last part up.
And this brings me to Lee Corso, the ESPN college football broadcaster and the director of business development for Dixon Ticonderoga. I’m not sure how these ventures are interrelated, but I’ll bet it’s a yin-yang thing. If you’ve ever watched ESPN, you’ve seen Mr. Corso emphasize his commentary with a flourish of the iconic yellow pencil with the green and yellow ferrule. I think that’s how Mr. Corso got the job at Dixon Ticonderoga.
I was a fan of Mr. Corso’s until I heard that the company no longer manufacturers its pencils in the United States. I would like to ask Mr. Corso what kind of business development this is. After all, the Dixon Ticonderoga Company and its quintessentially American pencils were named for Fort Ticonderoga, the site of one of the colonists’ first major victories in the American Revolution. It seems rather un-American to manufacture these all-American pencils elsewhere. But I’m not here to tell Mr. Corso how to run a business. I might be wrong. But there it is: something for the student of business development.
Little did those Aztecs know that their invention of the ubiquitous and ever-optimistic pencil would be such a marvelous thing . . . a little something for everyone.
A final note: Forbes ranks the pencil as the fourth most important tool of all time. I’m pretty sure it’s ahead of duct tape, and I know it’s mightier than the sword, which pencils in at number eight.

2 Comments on “The Lead in Your Pencil

  1. You are amazing Deborah! And if you haven’t yet read The Red Pencil, put it on your list! Great middle school read.

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