Speaking Volumes: The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance

May 8, 1998

On Henry Petroski's The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance.

As I sit at my desk I notice the pencil in the holder. It is a Venus pencil, which was originally produced by the American Lead Pencil Company in 1905 and was named after the Venus de Milo, which the president of the company considered a symbol of culture. It became the world's largest seller during the first world war. You will probably know this sort of pencil well.

Its distinctive dark green has a crazed pattern on it, because the original paint had a defect, but the makers were so pleased with the effect that they kept it as a trademark. As a historian, I find something rather satisfying in knowing this. But deeper emotions are stirred, when turning the pages of the works of Konrad Gesner, the great Swiss polymath, the "German Pliny", I read in Latin: "the stylus shown here is made for writing, from a sort of lead (which 1 have heard some English call antimony) shaved to a point and inserted in a wooden handle" and there below is the first illustration, dating from 1565, of a pencil. This may have been within a decade of the first use of the graphite from Borrowdale in Cumberland for writing.

The full story can be found in Henry Petroski's marvellous book. This is my sort of history and I constantly recommend the book to my students as an illustration of how you can push open a narrow, inconspicuous door to reveal a whole world. It is all here. "High policy"? Well, I suppose it did not make much difference that Abraham Lincoln used a German pencil to produce the first draft of the Gettysburg address. On the other hand, it is of greater moment that the war between Britain and France at the time of the French Revolution cut off the continent from supplies of English graphite and led a young engineer to develop a substitute from a mixture of powdered graphite, potter's clay and water, which became the basis of the modern pencil. His name, Conte, is forever associated with fine artist pencils. Literary studies? The fact that in the early 19th century the lead did not run right through the pencil, so that all the lead could be used, explains the "end of an old pencil - the part without any lead", which Harriet in Jane Austen's Emma keeps as a memento of a lost love. There is even ecology. Dewey, he of the library classification system, as an advocate of simplified spelling, lamented that one in seven trees were cut down unnecessarily to make pencils and paper because of the redundant letters used in English. As for science, it is a surprise to find that it is only in 1979 that there was a scientific explanation of the forces at work when a pencil point breaks. For this and so much more, Petroski will sit alongside other treasures of mine, such as John Walton's Fish and Chips and the English Working Class.

Jeremy Paterson is senior lecturer in ancient history, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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