674: The Pencil by Henry Petroski

by Gerard


674.88: Petroski, Henry. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. New York: Knopf, 2010. 354 pp. ISBN 0-679-73415-5.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 600: Technology
  • 670: Manufacturing
  • 674: Lumber processing, wood products, and cork
  • 674.8: Wood products
  • 674.88: Other products

I’m quite convinced that Henry Petroski could write about the engineering or manufacturing of anything and it would an order of magnitude better than expected. He’s authored books about bookshelves, the toothpick, and engineering projects that I would have expected to be ho-hum or dryasdust, but he always surprises me. In The Pencil, he takes on the titular subject and discusses not only the history of the object, but the mindset, engineering, and technology involved in crafting such a simple tool.

The Romans started with a tool known as a penicillum, or a pencil brush, but true pencils with lead/graphite cores are not documented in history until 1565 when an illustration shows up in a book on fossils by Konrad Gesner. Before the classic yellow #2 came into existence in 1890, there were all types of pencil designs. A massive graphite deposit discovered in Seathwaite, England lead to an acceleration in pencil design. Cheap pencils were just thick shards of graphite sharpened and wrapped with string, but by the early 1600s, wood casings were the norm.

All this begs the question: how does one actually make a pencil? Most processes are essentially the same. Take a piece of wood that is the general size and shape you want your finished product to be, cut a rut into which the writing substance can be fitted, then glue a wood cap on it to seal it together. You can then trim, re-shape, and paint the pencil to your liking after that. The process has been relatively unchanged since the Renaissance. Pencil variability and personal likes and dislikes come from the type of wood used, the shape of the pencil, and the quality of the graphite core.

It could be argued that Petroski’s history of the pencil could stand a bit of trimming, but all the engineering, biographical, and historical tangents were a lot of fun for me. If you want a straight history of the pencil, then you can just read the Wikipedia article and be done with it, but for a truly immersive and fully contextual account of the pencil and its place in history, read this one. It’s a bit hefty, but if you stick with it, you’ll get a lot out of it. He makes the reader slightly more aware of the little things, and I began to wonder about the manufacture of many other tiny quotidian objects in my life. That, I think, is the mark of a good author. A very interesting read.