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.
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 10-7mm = 1,178 kilometers. That’s about 732 miles.
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 x 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.”
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 called plumbago. It was actually a form of pure carbon, and combined with clay, it makes a dandy pencil.
The English farmers used the stuff to mark their sheep, but it turns out 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 Quetzalcoatl. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, they mistook Señor Cortes for Quetzalcoatl and welcomed him with open arms.
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.
Turns out the first erasers to rub out 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.
While Mr. Lipman was unable to hold on to his patent, the Dixon Ticonderoga Company was able to trademark the green ferrule that holds its celebrated pink pearl eraser. The Dixon Ticonderoga pencil I’ve been told 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 may be making that up.
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. Little did those Aztecs know that their invention of the ever-optimistic pencil would be such a marvelous thing.
One final note: Forbes ranks the pencil as the fourth most important tool of all time. That puts it ahead of duct tape. And it’s mightier than the sword, which pencils in at number eight.