Petroski, Henry. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. New York: Random House, 1992.

Lessons of the Pencil

The pencil is simultaneously central and incidental to Petroski's story. Petroski's subject is engineering; the object of his subject is the pencil. He tells a good story -- combining business history with technological developments, moving from the Romans stylus to the plastic mechanical pencils. But his purpose is not so much to tell the story of the pencil as to illustrate the lessons of the pencil: the pencil as the paradigm for engineering.

Where does the pencil story start? There are several kinds of pencil precursors. First, there is charcoal, and subsequently, the lead plummet, a lead-tin alloy used for making faint ruler lines on paper or vellum. Then, there is the penicillum, or the Roman fine-hair brush, which lends us the name pencil. Of course, dating from the beginning of writing itself is the stylus, used for writing on wax or clay tablets. Petroski argues that the first pencil comes together as a recognizable pencil when graphite was discovered in Cumberland, the Lake District of England, and it is first pictured in Konrad Gestner's 1565 book on fossils. It is significant that the pencil is seen immediately as a useful tool for the naturalist. How is a collector of specimens, an artist in the field, to draw? The portable clean wood-encased graphite tip has every advantage over quill and ink or an unwrapped piece of lead. There is no exact date for the "first pencil," but it appears to have been developed at mid-century. Graphite was originally called black lead, or plumbago, or wadd by the English locals. First used to mark sheep by those same locals, the mineral became so valuable that it was considered a royal and state treasure. At one point the mines were worked for six weeks and then flooded for five or six years at a time. Miners were searched as thoroughly upon exit, because the stealing the material was very profitable indeed.

Petroski shows us that as late as 1771, the term pencil was still defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a kind of brush. However, it appears that the familiar wood-bound object itself was in existence for at least a hundred years earlier: carpenters and joiners, who began making cases for graphite pieces, were identified as pencil makers as early as 1662. But the development of the profession of pencil maker was not without some difficulties. Petroski tells the story of a young immigrant craftsman named Staedtler, living in Nuremberg just after the 30-Years War, who married the daughter of the joiner, and was himself trained as a joiner by his father-in-law. After some time Staedtler hoped to stop making small boxes and toys, and focus on pencils. To do so, he needed to add "white-lead cutter" to his list of permissions from the Nuremberg town council. Staedtler was, essentially, mixing guild functions to create a new specialization, and he was turned down, at least at first. After some time he is listed as a Bleistiftmacher, and later, as a citizen. Pencil making became centered in Germany and England, and in Germany it was a family business empire. Because they had to import their graphite, Germans experimented with graphite powder and sulphur mixtures early on. Because there were several competing families in the pencil business, as well as what were called bunglers who sold wood with badly ground graphite running only half-way up the pencil, the habit of stamping pencils with a trademark began (again, not without debate).

When war broke out between England and France in 1793, French innovator Nicolas Jaques Conte developed a process which is still essentially the basis of lead-making today. (71) He mixed finely powdered graphite with potter's clay and rubbed the resultant paste into wooden molds. The past was dried, removed from the molds, packed in charcoal and fired to become a pencil lead. (70). This lead made a pencil superior in quality to the German pencils, and enabled the French to do without English pencils. War with England -- and the consequent cut-off of basic supplies -- was also a stimulus for local American pencil developers. Neither English, French nor German was especially forthcoming with details of the pencil-making process. Ground graphite plus some kind of binder, in a wooden case, was generally known. Even within factories families kept knowledge of the entire process to themselves. So Americans like Thoreau and Dixon, for example, had to re-invent the pencil for themselves. And they, too, kept close guard on their processes. Two advantages accrued to the Americans: first, they invented a process for compressing graphite which for a short while competed favorably with the Conte process, and second, they had trees. American cedar trees were the favored wood, and were cut down all across the South and Southwest. When all of the old Tennessee cabins, Mississippi split-rail fences, Georgia rocking chairs and Kentucky front-porch steps had been finally bought up, the Florida red cedar was replaced by the California incense cedar. But in the meantime, American wood was exported to pencil makers around the world.

Who bought pencils? Pencils were not, originally, the province of schoolchildren. Rather, they were conveniences for business people and for craftsmen. They appear to have been just expensive enough that a bad pencil was a sharp disappointment, even a matter for the "Better Business Bureau." Certainly, advertisements for pencils presume upon the desire not to be cheated in the quality of the lead or the quality of the joinery.

Pencils were made plentiful when various pencil-making families added or developed pencil-making machinery. New sources of steady power made for quicker and more standardized production. Some pencil manufacturers became pencil barons: one of the more amusing illustrations Petroski gives is of Stein, the Faber family's factory town. Stein had, of course, factory housing, a factory bank, and further, a school, church, gardens, emergency funds, and a nursery day-care. There were yearly factory festivities, and a choir of boys to sing over the Faber grave in perpetuity - could the pencil do any more? (151-153) Americans, and Germans who became Americans, set up shop in Jersey City and other locations closer to the pencil wood. In at least two instances (Dixon and Thoreau) pencil-making was an offshoot of the graphite crucible business. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, machinery for rapid production was developed and patented in the US more so than in Europe. (181)

Gradation was an early addition to the industrial methods of producing graphite and clay leads. Industry-wide standardization was never, and has never, been achieved. Markings are scaled from H for hard, to B for black, with F being perhaps "fine point" or "firm." S, for Soft, corresponds with B for black. Numbers are currently used to indicate hardness. A number 2 pencil is a medium grade pencil, neither very hard nor very black, but somewhat on the softer side. Once pencils were plentiful, and furthermore distinguished by maker's marks and hardness/blackness gradations, market fragmentation was perfectly possible. Indeed, it appears that it was natural to assume that different pencil users had widely different purposes. So who bought pencils? Well, the price had dropped so that schoolchildren did purchase pencils, or the school district did so for them. Since erasers added to the expense, one can read of debates centered on the inclusion or non-inclusion of the luxury eraser. Engineers bought harder pencils when left fainter marks, and engineering practice specified how to sharpen pencils for particular kinds of drafting. During World War I, one American manufacturer argued for heavily penciled and un-inked drawings because "a first class battleship required 'three large freight-car loads of drawings.' Under the pressure of war, drawings made the old way would have been 'obsolete before they could have been inked in'." (234) Even if the argument were self-serving, it is instructive to remember how much hand-work the pencil represents, and what kinds of efficiency arguments would make social sense.

Why did consumers choose one pencil over another? Some national sentiment was involved, and also some product "snobbery." The Koh-i-Noor purchaser was getting the best Siberian graphite and a lovely yellow lacquered finish to remind him or her of the Asiatic origin of the lead. (And the Koh-i-Noor led the way to the standard yellow pencil.) A Bavarian conglomerate (Berolzheimer, Ildelder, and Reckendorfer) simplified their name to the Eagle Company, a more "American" sounding name. (And later renamed it Berol, after the Americanized family name). The Mikado, produced by a German-American firm was renamed the Mirado after Pearl Harbor. Innovations to in pencil-making field are and were primarily centered in changes to casings and leads. For instance, very thin polymer-based leads were pioneered by Japanese firms and then mastered by German firms.

World-wide competition increased until there were three big European firms (Faber, A.W. Faber-Castell, and L. & C. Hardtmuth) and four big American firms (Eberhard, American, Dixon and Eagle). The European firms consolidated in 1931, and German and Japanese firms were competitors to American firms in world-wide markets. The scope of the pencil business in the 20th century -- the narrow profit margins -- changed the kind of engineering practice needed. In other ways, however, competition proceeded upon the basis that it has done in the past. "Scripto's vice president, writing in 1928," said "we decided that we must employ negroes, for the wage scale are even lower than for white female labor. Then someone got the idea: why not use black female labor?" (270) In 1965 Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders called for a nationwide boycott of Scripto products. Turn-of-the-century pencil sharpeners were hailed for their convenience, but their manufacturers were brought into court more than once, accused of being designed by pencil manufacturers to sharpen too much. And, as mentioned above, industrial espionage, disaffected German workers, and the rather improbable story that a series of Nuremberg residents were taking a holiday in Helsinki was the basis for a Russian factory established by Armand Hammer for Lenin. After the Soviets bought it out, it was renamed the Saccho and Vanzetti factory, and became famous for making imaginary pencils to meet quotas. In the US, mid-Depression, Abraham Berwald, the Eagle Advertising manager, invited a writer from the New Yorker to see the new turquoise drawing pencil sharpened to a point and dropped on a record to play a "scratchy but stirring" rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" (303) In 1954, when the five-cent pencil became the six-cent pencil, the US government charged the big Four with anti-trust violations. One of the biggest customers for pencils was, of course, the US Government and big businesses. In a sense, we are back at the guild arguments in 1565 Nuremberg.

What are the lessons about engineering, as illustrated by/embodied in the pencil? In his closing paragraph Petroski reiterates them. In plumbago, or graphite, the importance of discovery and exploitation of new resources. In the end of the Cumberland mines, the necessity to develop alternative resources. In the French pencil, the value of research and development. In world-wide competition, the dominance of unbreakable relationship between engineering and business.

(340) Does Petroski offer a good history of the pencil? Certainly. It is engaging, interesting, fact-filled, even fast-paced. Could Petroski have offered other lessons had he picked a different artifact? Perhaps. But one suspects that he would not have. He had in his mind the definition of what engineers do, based, perhaps on long study, and having created the definition, he applied it back to the artifact in question. Material culture informs but does not precisely direct his story.