The Pencil, a History of Graphite, Wood and Feuds
Amanda, Choosing Keeping

This story does not start with a pencil. It starts with the assumption, made by author, scholar and engineer Henry Petroski, that “Just as there is no artefact that is without engineering, so there is no engineering that is free of the rest of society”: innovations, both impalpable and life-altering, don’t originate from a simple spark, a stroke of genius, but from a combination of patience, planning, calculation, creativity and competition. 

Pencils, like the most elaborate progeny of engineering mastery, enshrine the secret of determination, sheer talent and a consistent amount of…good timing. In spite of its presence in our everyday life, the pencil is an invisible miracle of technique and innovation.

In his book The Pencil - A History of Design and Circumstance, Petroski intertwines the evolution of our beloved writing tool to the history of the world - more specifically Europe and the United States (with some journey to Siberia and India) - and unearths the indissoluble links between the ever-changing sociopolitical landscape and the evolution of craft and engineering in the Western world. “This is so because the engineering and the marketing of the pencil are as inextricably intertwined as they are for any artifact of civilization” he states.

The history of pencil making spanned centuries and continents, but at its core it was shaped by three main events: the discovery of a deposit of graphite near Borrowdale, England, in the 16th century, the popularisation of the Conté process in Europe - the creation of a substitute lead made of powdered graphite and clay by engineer-inventor Nicolas-Jacques Conté when the mineral became scarce in France because of the outbreak of war with England - and the mid-19th-century discovery of another graphite mine in Eastern Siberia. 

Interspersed with wars, family feuds, holy matrimonies and over-the-top advertising, the history of pencils is also a study in human ingenuity - and the relentless exploitation of workforce and natural resources, the birth of unions and worker strikes and the 40-hour-work-week - accessories and marketing: the competition between beloved brands such as Faber Castel and Koh-I-Noor was played on the field of dedicated designs, colours, leads and shapes, appealing to both the broad market and specific professional needs.  

Some of you - perhaps the ones more devoted to the genial, tactile and sentimental aspect of writing - might scoff at a book about pencils written by an engineer. How pedestrian, to turn such a miraculous endeavour into a mechanical process! And yet Petroski, well aware of the skeptical out there, playfully reminds us that some of our most beloved men (and women) of words and literary proclivities were also people of great curiosity and insight. 

Take Walden’s Henry David Thoreau, who set out for a life of isolated self-sufficiency - and listed every single tool he brought with him - and according to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson always carried “in his pocket, his diary and pencil”. In fact, despite all his reading and writing, Thoreau never listed a pencil among his survival kit, which is staggering, considering that he had been a brilliant pencil maker and a pioneer of the craft. Thoreau’s relations with engineering and pencil is relevant because it’s helpful for understanding the nature of the discipline in the nineteenth-century, and how men and women perfected the art to the point of carving a space for a concept that three hundred years ago barely existed.

At its heart, The Pencil is a book about human and social improvement, innovation and method, pioneering spirit and problem-solving, but it mostly invites us to look at things from various angles and perspectives, for one has to celebrate the invisible links between the details and the big picture, and find the pencil inside the bridge, the skyscraper in a pencil sharpener.

Find the book here

How hexagonal pencils are made.

An illustration of an 'impossible pencil' and corrections