August 5, 2018 by libroshombre
What do Leonard Bernstein, John Steinbeck, Quincy Jones, E.B. White, Eugene O’Neill, Archibald MacLeish, Loony Tunes animator Chuck Jones, and I have in common? Well, MacLeish was also a librarian, but we all are aficionados of fine pencils, and the Blackwing 602 in particular. It’s unknown if former Alaska Lt. Governor Red Boucher preferred Blackwings, but he appreciated pencils. Shortly after my arrival in Fairbanks in 1990, Mr. Boucher forwarded a report about an amazing communications device that required no power or recharging, was extremely portable, and worked in all conditions – even underwater and outer space. Red’s revelation was the pencil.
“Pencil” comes from the Old French term, “pincel,” from the Latin “pencillus” or “little tail.” Lead sticks, stones, wood styli, and other devices were used for writing until 1565, when history’s only significant deposit of pure, solid graphite ever was discovered in Cumbria, England. Originally it was thought to be a lead ore deposit, and pencil cores are still called “leads.” The graphite was sawn into slender lengths and then wrapped in string or sheepskin, and suddenly, smooth legible writing was possible even on horseback. And by lining cannonball molds, graphite made the balls smoother and more accurate, so the British crown quickly claimed the mine. When Britain later boycotted France, Napoleon ordered an inventive French officer, Nicolas-Jacques Conte, to create a substitute for graphite, which he did by mixing clay with graphite powder, which was available from non-British sources, and then kiln-firing it into hardened pencil cores.
The first American pencil was created in 1812 by Massachusetts cabinetmaker William Munroe, but his process was cumbersome. He was supplanted by Henry David Thoreau and his father, a leading pencil manufacturer. When not trancendentalizing, the younger Thoreau improved his dad’s business by developing different hardnesses of pencil lead by using various clay mixtures and baking temperatures. Hard pencils have more clay, and soft ones more graphite. Thoreau designated the differences with gradated numbers – the #2 pencil we grew up with is equal parts hard and soft, and so firm enough to write with without sharpening too often, and soft enough to make dark impressions without being too smudgy. However, the rest of the world usies the H/B (“Hard/Bold”) designations, with softer ones being more bold or dark. For example, an H4 will write extremely lightly and scratchily, a B4 will be soft enough for artistic shading, and an H/B’s in the middle, like a #2.
“A Beginner’s Guide to Pencil Shopping” on CWPencils.com covers pencil grades, as well as country of origin (Indian and German pencils are harder than mid-range US, Swiss, and Portuguese models), the composition, color and shape of erasers, with most high grade pencils eschewing them altogether (but Blackwings have distinctive, effective erasers). Then there’s the finish: hard plastic, glossy shellac, or “soft, naked cedar”? Cedar’s the preferred casing, because it sharpens best and is fragrant. There are myriad shapes and sizes, but most pencils are 6 mm in diameter and either hexagonal, triangular, or round. Some, like the infamous “golf pencils” found at the library’s computer terminals are intentionally stubby, but most normal pencils are 7.5 inches long.
GentlemanStationer.com noted that the Dixon-Ticonderoga was the pencil “that most of us, well at least those of us above the age of 25, learned to write with,” and that age demarcation is interesting. The Philadelphia CBS affiliate’s article, “Kids Use Tech So Much They Can’t Hold A Pencil Anymore,” reported “a group of doctors is now saying young children in the digital generation can’t even hold a pen or pencil anymore. ‘Children are not coming into school with the hand strength and dexterity they had 10 years ago … they don’t have the fundamental movement.”
Yet, “Pen and Paper Beats Computers For Retaining Knowledge,” a TimesHigherEducation.com article, said “University students find it easier to retain information when using books and handwriting notes rather than computers.” In this age of Internet intrusions and obfuscations, perhaps we should seriously consider the new “privacy breakthrough” proposed by cartoonist Jen Sorensen that “allows you to browse with zero data collection,” foils “the oligarch-funded psychological warfare” of Cambridge Analytica and its ilk, and prohibits “tyrannical algorithms” from force-feeding “viral stories.” Sorensen calls it “the Private Russia-proof Information and News transmitter: PRINT.”