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January 20, 2020 45 mins

It’s easy to take the pencil for granted, but that eraser-capped wooden cylinder with a core of graphite has a story and a history -- and Robert and Joe explore it in this episode of Invention.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:03):
Welcome to Invention, a production of I Heart Radio. Hey,
welcome to Invention. My name is Robert Lamb and I'm
Joe McCormick, and today we're going to be exploring the
invention of the pencil. Yes, like, like most of you,
we grew up with pencils, the good old fashioned wooden variety.

But of course you know the whole exercise of having
to keep the you know, keep them sharpened, dealing with brakes,
dealing with oh I always hey when they when the
eraser either rubs off or falls out, and then you
go to erase something and you just get that heart
like I'm getting the chills even thinking about it, of
the metal, of the of an eraserless pencil scraping against
your text. Or Another thing I hate is when you

get like an older pencil out of your grandmother's writing
desk and it has one of those petrified erasers that
does nothing, and you start chewing on it, only to
realize it has lead paint. Well I'm that chewing on
them is another issue altogether, But but I remember, you know,
eventually being done, feeling done with the old fashioned wooden pencil,

and then I embraced the mechanical pencil instead. Wait wait, wait,
you mean done, like I'm never going to use a
wooden pencil again. Basically, yeah, it's like what mechanical pencils exist?
Goodbye wooden pencil I'm done with you and sharp to
pencils just no more, basically. And you know, also I
think at the time, being you know, essentially still a child,
like there was the gadget try of it right, Suddenly

oh I there's this plastic cylinder or I remember the
fancy ones. We had to like load the little uh
purchased lead um into the back of the pencil, and
you know, and then you're having to click it to
get I mean, ultimately it's another headache, right because it
still breaks. You still have to reload it, you have
to dry. You end up dropping those little tiny leads
all over the place. And I never liked mechanical pencils.

I think I always have had too heavy of a
hand when writing. I pressed down too hard, and so
the mechanical pencil lead would always just snap instantly. I
also as a heavy doodler. One of the things I
noticed is that with the mechanical pencil, you pretty much
always have the same um you can you're always making
the same thickness of line for the most part, tiny gauge. Yeah.

But with a pencil, is it dolls? You can? And
even if it's not dold, you can do more things
on the paper when you're drawing, you know, goblins and
castles in the margins of your notes. Yes, the cone
of graphite becomes something that you can angle to its
flat side if you want to, sort of like shade more.
It's it's much more versatile, I believe. Yeah. But but
either way, even as I grew tired of the mechanical pencil,

I fell into the arms of the word processor, which
I mean that's a whole whole episode of invention onto itself.
The word processor is amazing. Uh. It it changed the
way I wrote. It defines the way I write today. Uh.
And so to a certain extent, I guess I kind
of thought I was done with anything aside from you know,
occasional sharpie's and uh in markers uh and the you

know in pens for when you have to sign something,
I guess, or to make a quick note. But otherwise
I was like, oh, I don't need to consider pencils
ever again. But then two things happened first, um Um
ended up becoming a parent. So I have a child
who's going through elementary school, and suddenly pencils, old fashioned
pencils were flowing back into my household or having to

buy sharpeners, and I had to acknowledge, you know, given
his schooling and he's learning to write and spell and
doing a lot of physical homework in addition to digital homework. Uh,
the pencil, the old fashioned pencil is is really wonderful technology.
I've got a question that comes from this, Actually, why
is it that we associate pencils with childhood and pens

with adulthood? Do you know what I mean? Yeah, well, okay.
Part of it I think is is the the eraser
aspect of it, right, the idea that as you're learning,
you will be making mistakes and you will need to
correct things. And then adults make mistakes. Oh no, obviously,
but perhaps there is this idea as adults that we

don't make mistakes, We shouldn't be making mistakes, or you know,
when we make a stake, mistakes will just cross it out.
We don't have We're not turning our work into a supervisor,
you know, to a teacher anymore we can. These are
notes are mostly from my own purposes, and therefore I
can do what I want. With adults, it's more important
to have a constant reminder of your mistake, is a
big scratched out blot on the page steering back each

rather than something that you can erase all evidence of
right now. Of course, there are some of you movies saying, oh, well,
there are erasable pins. I definitely remember. Irasable pins were horrible. Yeah,
I was never a huge fan of them, but but
they did exist. Just to acknowledge. But another thing that
is very recently happening happened to me really in the
last month is after like a five year period of

being a dungeon master in Dungeons and Dragons, I became
a player again under another dungeon master, so I had
my physical character sheet. Again. One can use a digital
character set, but I prefer the paper. And if you're
going to be writing down a bunch of stats and belongings,
you know, recording how much gold your character has, how
many experience points, their hit points, etcetera, it really behooves

you to have an erasable and erasable pencil. To have
a pencil at your disposal for this. So I find
myself using an old fashioned pencil once more and not
only appreciating it, but marveling at the at the perfection
of the device, of of this invention, of this writing

implement the pencil. I got asked, do you go like
full on pencil long thing with the eraser or you
kind of a golf pencil game. I am not a
golf pencil person, know what I'm really digging right now. Uh,
And this feels a little extravagant when I compare it
to my childhood experience with pencils pre sharpened Tai Conderoga
pencils that come in the box already sharpen. You just

take them out, they're ready to go. Uh. If you
want to be just completely reckless, and I don't recommend this,
you could like basically pull one out right with it
until it breaks and then just throw it away. But
don't do that, obviously. But then that's why I think
it feels kind of extravagant, because I remember just using
pencils until they were just gone. Oh. I loved it. Actually,
I really enjoyed getting a pencil down to the like

the one inch zone. I thought that was fun. Yeah,
where it had no no length on the pencil, no
eraser remaining where I remember the replacement erasers that you
put on the end of the pencil. Yeah, yeah, yeah,
that fit over the end yea, which which really I
found did not work all that well. You'd go to
a race something, I'd just come off, but it would break. Yeah. Yeah,
but sometimes they look cool. They're brightly colored, and yeah,

you kind of end up. That was the thing too.
I remember just fetishizing writing implements as a child. You know,
did you ever have one of those gigantic novelty parallelogram erasers,
the standalone eraser that's parallelogram with the bent sides? Big,
I don't think I had one of I tend to
have tended to have the gum eraser like that dark brown,

you know, just a just a try angular chunk. Do
you remember this one? Now? Would I would have that?
I know nothing of this. This is outside my world.
Well or nice, especially if you're if you're engaging in
you know, uh, pencil art. It's good to having like
a nice art eracer art gum eracer on the side.
Now you might wonder, like, well, how much could actually

be out there about the pencil. You know, there's somebody,
a scholar of engineering, who wrote an entire book about
the history and invention of the pencil as like an
injury from an engineer's perspective. Uh. This is a book
by Henry Petrovski called The Pencil, A History of Design
and Circumstance, published by Alfred A. Knopf in And. Petrovsky

is an American engineer and a professor of civil engineering
at Duke University. I haven't finished reading this whole book yet.
It is a huge book about pencils, and it is
it is great, Yeah, in more than one sense. In
one sense, if you find any article online about the pencil,
this book is inevitably cited, like he is the authority

on pencils. And then, on the other hand, this is
not a dry read. It is so like he has
an incredible time just taking the pencil's history apart, contemplating
what it means, what it says about the human experience,
what it says about innovation and invention. It's extremely contemplative
and full of what almost feels like oratory. Often the

book feels like it is it is a speech that
would have been delivered in ancient rome about like the
virtues of engineering or or like there's almost a religious
flare to it, like, Hello, my name is Henry Petrovski,
and I would like to tell you about the pencil. So, yeah,
this is gonna be a lot of fun. And it's
one reason it made me think, I'm not sure yet
whether this is going to be our one episode about

the pencil, or maybe we'll need to explore more, maybe
we'll have to come back. Yeah, we'll have to keep
an eye on it, because as we explore the pencil,
we're going to have to talk about and a number
of other writing implements, and we're going to have to
talk about the racer as well. So uh, let's let's
go ahead and dive in. Generally, our our format on
the show is to begin with what came before. Obviously, Yeah,

pencils haven't been here forever. We know writing predates the pencil,
So so what does that world look like? All right, Well,
let's just think for a second about writing implements. At
a very basic level, the act of writing or even
drawing requires you to either add to a given surface,
subtract from a given surface, or but just in some

way disrupt an existing layer or a pile of particles, right,
And the most basic tool to do this is of
course the human finger. So with the finger in mind,
you can even pull yours out and look at it.
Right now, Um, let's let's consider a few examples. So,
first of all, the additive model. So if you were
to dab your finger in dye, in oil, in blood,

or smearit with ash and then trace a few lines
on a surface, that is uh, you know, additive writing
that you're adding to something to create the act. Right,
then there is subtractive Okay, If you use your fingernail
to scratch a few lines into a surface by removing
the outer layers such as you know, layers of bark
on a tree, a stone face, paint on a house,

or on a metal sign, that sort of thing, then
you were subtracting from it to make your mark. And
both of these methods of making marks go far back
into prehistory. Like if you look at a cave paintings
or petroglyphs, some of these are going to be additive,
where you know that they've created some kind of pigment
out of something and then painted that onto cave walls,
others are going to be subtractive where you see carvings

that are left behind his indentations, right, and then there's
this other area which is is kind of in between,
and that's just disruption. So if you were to trace
the same lines through, say the accumulated dust on a
given surface, or the accumulated ash following say, you know,
volcanic eruption, it's the perfect way to use your finger
as a writing implement. When you realize that you can

write wash me on the dusty back of somebody's car, right,
But even without surfaces like that, you know you can
you can write in the in the dirt or in
the sand with your finger. It's it's not quite subtraction
or addition. It is much more of a disruption of
the of what is before you. So that's just a
basic way to to look at it. But of course

humans didn't just create language, they also created tools. So
the finger is just the beginning. Let's consider a few
more examples of each of these forms of writing. Uh,
but instead of stopping at the finger, will go beyond
the finger into instruments. Let's insert beyond the finger music. Alright,

going beyond the finger so let's start with both the
subtractive and disruption sort of you know, putting together into
one category here. I think a fine example of this
is the use of a stylus to make marks in
a wax or clay tablet. And this was used from
ancient times well into the Middle Ages. Yeah, I think
probably it would be the oldest examples of like character

based writing we have, right, would be, uh, you know,
from like ancient Mesopotamia using stylists to make indentations in
like a clay or wax surface. And for a more
modern example, I think you have some of these novelty
toys where you use a magnetic stylists to move around
iron filings. Yeah, you know, generally you're not maybe writing something,

you're more like putting a mustache of iron filings onto
a cartoon face. But but that I think also is
an example of what we're talking about here now. Speaking
of of of the stylists or or styles, which I
believe is the plural um, Petrovsky writes that iron styles
were known to be often misused in Roman times because
one of the things about a fine tipped metal object

is you can also use them to stab people. So uh.
So sometimes they were banned in favor of ivory or
other materials, which of course begs the question can't you
stab somebody with ivory? Obviously you can. I mean, you
can stab somebody with a number two pencil if it's
sharpened enough. And um, you know so I don't entirely
understand the prohibition there. Um. But lead was also a

particularly favored material at the time as well, and we
can come back to that. Yes, Now let's talk about
additive writing implements. The use of chalk and slate is
a great example, and that goes back at least to
like the eighth century. Uh. And the the use of
ink on a brush or in a pin is another
good example. The history of of the ink pen will

have to, I think, wait for another episode of this show,
but suffice to say that reed pens were used in
ancient Egypt five thousand years ago and are still used today.
In some places. Quills have been used for this purpose
as well as have metal nibs. The ink pin with
a reservoir dates back seemingly at least as far as
the tenth century CEU to northern Africa, and then of

course the pencil. The modern pencil that we're talking about
in this episode. Uh, this is additive as well, um,
and an additive method that uses a graphite cord length
of wood sharpened on one end and capped with a
rubber eraser on the other. Though of course sometimes you'll
still find pencils that are either uh not capped, whether
an eraser or capped with with just metal. Yeah, your

golf pencils not capped. Yeah, that's the the low rent version. Well,
maybe we should take a break and the when we
come back, we can discuss the pencil in terms of
names and materials. All right, we're back, So let's start
with the name of this invention itself. Yes, So it

turns out the name of the pencil actually pre dates
what we would think of as a pencil, which is
this thing made of wood with or even you know,
mechanical pencil either way, with a letter, graphite core inside
the the eraser on the back. Things that were really
not much like that. We're called a pencil long before
this existed, that's right. According to Petroski, this refers to

the penicillum brush um, which this was the Latin name
for a writing instrument that consisted of a tuft of
animal hair that was inserted into a hollow read. So
if you can imagine, yeah, you have you have this
this tuft of animal hair that I think it's like
kind of curled and shaped, and then you insert that

through a hollowed out read, hollow read and then that
way you're holding the read on the outside, but in
the interior of it is this, uh, this animal hair. Right,
So what you would have is a a long, solid
implement I believe it would be the same length or
so of a pencil of today. But then out the
end of it you would have a fine gathering of

animal hairs all clumped together by the opening at the
end of the read. So what it would create is
this fine tipped little brush. Yeah. And and and to a
certain extent, it mind is one of various animal tails.
And in this we kind of get into the curious
history of the word, the name itself, and and also
I think we touched on the the euphemism treadmill that

we've discussed on stuff to blow your mind in the past.
Because the Latin name stems from penaesulis, the for the
for brush, which is a diminutive form of the word
penis which is Latin for tail. So a pencil is
literally a little tale. Yes, And if you're wondering, I
did look it up. Was the word penis in Latin?

Did that actually ever mean penis like it does in
English today? Apparently sometimes it did, but originally what it
meant was tail, And then again through some like process
of euphemisms or whatever associations, it also came to me
and what it means in English today. So call it
what you will. Let's consider the particular strength of the

modern pencil based on what we've been talking about so far.
So first of all, it is portable. It is highly portable,
and I smudge roof to a very large degree at
least when you Yes, you can smudge pencil etchings. But
compare it to ink, compare it to a chalk on
a board. Uh, it's I think it's it's safe to
say that it's pretty smudge free. It's less messy than

most of these other forms of writing. It is erasable
on untreated paper, and uh, certainly today anyway, it is inexpensive.
People regularly treat the pencil like dirt. I'll walk my
son into school and they'll be like a pencil and
a mud puddle and um, and of course I've kind

of been broken by our disposable culture to where I
would just pass it by. He'll stop, He'll pick it
up out of the mud puddle and be like, look,
here's a pencil. We should say this, And sometimes they
have to say, oh, I think you're right. Later, the
eracer looks pretty good on that one. It's it's even
still sharpened. Okay, let's dry it off. That's the sweetest
thing saving a pencil. Yeah, I mean, and I agree

with them now that I'm I'm forcing myself to respect
the pencil a lot more now by Roman times, I
think that Petroski uh points out that you have two
different uh threads of technology that would eventually unite to
become the pencil we have today, because in those times
we had the penicillum, the brush, the read with the
hair through it, and that that would sort of supply

the elements that you think of of like a long
thing that you can hold in your hand to write with.
It's rigid and it makes a dark, fine mark on
the page. And but the other thing he points out
is that at the time, lead was literally used as
a writing implement and this would have been real lead,
not the graphite of today. Uh. So, you know, there

are several reasons that lead would be useful as a
writing implement. Number one is very soft and so it
can rub off on a writing surface to easily leave
a mark. But that mark, if you were just like
holding a chunk of lead in your hand to write with,
the mark would probably not be very dark. It would
be kind of light colored, and it would not be uh,
and it would not necessarily be very permanent. Maybe it

could easily get rubbed off and also kind of be
hard to hold the chunk in your hand as you're writing.
So it seems like these two things could ultimately kind
of converged, right. Yeah, Now, a quick note on lead
for starters. There's an older episode of Stuff to Blow
your Mind our other podcast titled Cupids Laden Arrow, which
is about lead and about the history of lead and

how lead was used, and we get into a lot
of Roman uses of lead and then as well. Another
thing to keep in mind is that graphite was a
long thought to be a form of lead and was
sometimes classified as such. Thus some of our confusion at
time regarding the lead in our pencil. Yeah, but but
there is a specific material reason why something like lead

would have been useful for writing, And again it's that
it's soft to the lead. The paper that you write
on is kind of like sand paper. It just you know,
scrapes it right off and leave some on there to
be your additive marking material. Absolutely, so, of course, graphite
or lead or charcoal, any of these things in and
of themselves can be used as a writing implement. You

could just have a chunk of of graphite in your hand,
but do you actually want to write with that? Do
you want your hand to potentially cramp. That's something that
Petrusky touches on a number of times is that you
need a writing implement that is not too big or
too small, like if you had to write with a
golfing pencil all the time. Like a golfing pencil is
ideal because ultimately you're not writing, You're you're only gonna

be so verbose while you're keeping score during a golf game.
You just need to jot down a few numbers here
and there. There's no you know, introductory paragraph or a
self reflection essay. Only needs to be useful enough to cheat. Right.
Another question is do you want that graphite or lead
all over your hand and your fingers and then potentially
all over your work surface while you're writing. Uh, Thus

the need to encase it in something much like the
read casing um of the the sort of you know,
the earlier pencil, the penicillum that we discussed earlier. So
so there's that side of the advancement. The other side
of the advancement, of course, is that paper became increasingly cheaper,
and graphite then was an increasingly favored means of etching

on it, especially after a deposit of fine graphite was
an earth in Cumbria, England during the fifteen hundreds. By
the way, in this region today you'll find the Derwent
Pencil Museum in what is now Kesswick. They have the
largest colored pencil in the world. That sounds like something
worth stopping on your road trip for right now. I

did note that they specify the largest colored pencil in
the world, which makes me think there must be an
even larger just graphite pencil somewhere in the world, but
I do not know where that is. So I would
love to hear from our listeners if they know where
we can find such a titan pencil. It's got to
be in Florida. So I was reading another article on this.
This one came from Howard J. Bennett in the Washington Post.

There was an article uh, ever wondered about the lead
and pencils. Uh. And he points out that, yes, graphite
was thought to be a form of lead at the time,
and this is why we still refer to the lead
and the pencil. But at the time, a graphite stylus
was just a sawed off stick of graphite, sort of
like a thick crayon. Um, Bennett writes, with no paper
wrapped around it. And you would you would whittle down

one end of it with a knife as you would
like whittle a stick, and then use that to write with.
That doesn't sound very fun. It's yeah, it's You're just
gonna get a graphite all over your fingers, right. Petrovsky
comments at length, actually about the interesting phenomenon of tools
and materials that are named after the original materials they
were made out of, but no longer are made out

of those materials. So you've got the lead and a pencil,
the silverware you use, which is made out of stainless steel,
and he talks about how I think. In England erasers
are often called rubbers, even though they're probably now made
out of some petroleum product. Yeah, it's like we we
the terminology sticks, even though the material changes. So in

the late fifteen hundreds people began gluing graphite rods inside
wooden sleeves because it's essentially what we're talking about here
with the pencil. Even though you know, generally I'm looking
at a pencil right now, and you certainly do not
do not get that sense from looking at the modern
version of it. You don't feel like this is a
thing that was assembled. It almost feels like something that

was grown. Yeah, I know what you mean. And certainly
manufacturing processes have changed somewhat since then. But anyway, fifteen hundreds,
something like the modern pencil uh comes into the world.
So you might be wondering, then if we have any
actual names or places to consider here. So if you
go to the Wikipedia entry for pencils, and it's a

logical place to go. We were Wikipedia fans here. I
think we've discussed in the show or stuff to blow
your mind before that. You know, Wikipedia is an increasingly
good place to get like a general idea of what's
going on with the topic, and sometimes a very in
depth look at a particular topic not a good final source,
so say, because you know anybody can edit it. But yeah,
it's often a great place to start out. But if

if you do, go to Wikipedia's entry for pencils, you'll
find Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti credited with this advancement UH
circle of fifteen sixty in Italy. So the sources on
this are a Rocket City Space Pioneers page which had
a short article titled who invented the pencil? Despite the
Rocket City Space Pioneers having been a past Google Lunar

X Prize participant and not really you know, a website
associated with the history of writing implements. That's interesting. It
also cites a history of Information dot com website written
by Jeremy Norman, who wrote quote, uh, Simon Eo and
Lidiana Bernacotti are believed to have created the first carpentry pencil.
They did this by hollow hollowing out a stick of

juniper wood. Okay, don't necessarily sound like the most solid
of sources I've all, but I've also seen this line
of reasoning picked up on an least one um uh
you know journal article Uh, simplicity as a route to
impact a material research by ten at Allen and Advanced Materials.
But I at least can't find much to back up

or elaborate upon these individuals. Uh, though perhaps I'm missing something.
Petrovsky did not mention these two individuals when he wrote
the following in his book on Pencils. Quote. Exactly when
and where pencils containing graphite were first made and used
appears to be unrecorded, as are so many technological milestones.

There are undocumented assertations that that place the discovery of
the graphite that Gessner refers to as early as about
fifteen hundred and as late as fifteen sixty five, the
date of his book, But the scanty evidence generally points
to the unearthing of the pencils marking substance the new
unrefined mineral or English antimony as sometime in the early

fifteen sixties in Cumberland. So this would be referring to graphite. Yes, yeah,
So that seemed to be about the best we can
do in terms of you know, finding you, because we
do always want we always want to find that Eureka
moment you always want to find that that first individual
and the cool story about how they you know, accidentally

invented the pencil or saw it in a dream and
made hit a reality. But like you said, sometimes we
just don't have an answer. It just kind of emerges
from what people are doing at that time. Well, this
is actually something Petrovsky talks about in his book A
Good Bit, which is that much of the history of
engineering is unrecorded um because for much of human history,

engineering was not thought of as something that deserved to
be written about, um. Like he talks about in Ancient Rome. Vitruvius,
you know, writes this great treatise on architecture where it's
clear that Vitruvius is is he really knows his stuff
in terms of engineering and architecture of the day, but
he's a terrible writer. Like he didn't you know, bother

to go out and say, like, I'm going to get
a better writer to do this. So, you know, people
have commented through the years that his Latin sucks, um.
But but yeah, I think it's just because historically it's
a fairly unusual attitude that that, uh, that engineering innovation
is worth being written about, and a lot of times,

you know, especially worth being written about in like sources
that are meant to be you know, read by the
public and sustained over time. A lot of times, if
we want insights from literary sources on the history of engineering,
you have to like look at people's diaries and letters
and stuff. Yeah, and then it's something we've just seen
in the past. Who as you have like a situation
where is the person who who happens upon an innovation

or even an invention just in order to do to
get the work done, to get through the day, you know,
be it like create essentially creating the forerunner of the
jigsaw puzzle in order to be a better teacher, that
sort of thing. And then there's the person who comes
along and says, m hmmm, I bet I could make
some money off of that. I could mass produce that, etcetera.

So no offense to the bernacottis I don't know where
whether I buy that or not. But I mean they
very very well maybe true, we just do not have
perhaps robust evidence enough, uh you know, to to uh
you know, to state that that is what happened. Okay,
so question mark on that, yes, but at any rate,
it there it certainly catches on. And then later in

sevente it was discovered that one could vary the hardness
of a pencil's lead by mixing powdered graphite with clay
and firing it in a kiln. The more clay, the
harder the lead. And this is ideal if you want
a finely sharpened pencil that won't break easily. Well, that
that's the friend of the heavy handed like me. Yeah,

and um and and also yeah, it allows you again
to make different types of lines and strokes. Right, you
have the finely sharpened pencil where you can do a
lot of very fine work. But then as it gets duller,
you can, uh, you can color in those shapes. You can.
You know, it changes how you're writing. But uh, it
also gives you a lot more versatility. Okay, So whoever

actually invented it, we know by the fifteen hundreds, these
graphite cores were being inserted into these wooden outlines, and
then by the late seventeen hundreds they had found a
better way to incorporate graphite by mixing it with the
this clay, and you're getting something more like the pencil
product we're familiar with, right, yeah, and it's it's inside

inside the wood. So we almost have the pencil that
we uh, the basic form of the pencil that we
have today. But of course it's missing something on one end,
and that would be the racer, which we'll get to
in a bit. For now, we're going to take a break,
but we will be right back to continue our exploration. Alright,

we're back. You know one thing that I meant to
mention earlier that I think is really net. Petrovsky has
a lot of little tangents and had bits of history
throughout this book, and in discussing, like the the advantages
of a pencil over other writing implements, he shares a
little bit about the Scottish poet Robert Burns who lived

seventeen fifty nine through seventeen nine and his reported fondness
for writing on glass panes with a with either it
seems to depend on who you're reading on this, either
a diamond pointed pen or stylists, or perhaps a diamond ring. Um.
And uh so he's using it to, you know, to

etch into the glass pane permanently, um, composing poetry upon
it or within it, depending on how you look at it.
And a number of these diamond point engravings can still
be found throughout Scotland, though some maybe fakes apparently not
actually Robie right, but but when out there has you know,

certainly if you if you are Scottish, or if you've
lived in Scotland or traveled in Scotland for any length
of time and you've you've seen one of the uh,
we'd love to hear from you about it. But anyway,
they're they're often celebrated, um and uh in. Petrovsky argues
that the pencil delivers on a number of the strengths
exhibited by this technique without having to rely on fine

stones and vandalism, though interestingly enough, he stresses the graphite
in a pencil is chemically the same as a diamond.
Oh yeah, the same constituents, different structure. Yeah, we're my love,
Jon carbon fair alright. So coming back to the pencil itself.
The pencil was then used in congress with ink for
a long time as a way of say, lightly marking

the margins or even tracing characters, before bringing in permanent
ink to h to make it permanent and of course
to you know, to stand out more. Bright black ink
on parchment, But the pencil becomes steadily more important, evolving
from a mere instrument among many to being the writing
implement par excellence of the pre computer world. Just think,

for example, of how we use pencil in the English language,
you know, to pencil someone or something in uh the
uh the adage about this is why pencils have erasers.
You know, that's something that made at times feel a
little um hokey today. But but Petrosky actually talks about
it a little bit like you know that when it

is first rolled out. I believe a pastor use this
analogy and does I think that is one of the
things about the pencil that is appealing is that it does,
on some level, even if it is a hokey level,
it sums up something about the human experience. And of course,
even if we're not gonna wax poetic about all of this,
it is hard to imagine and hard to use a

pencil without an eraser, like the two just go hand
in hand, right, So you're probably wondering when does the
eraser affix itself to the pencil. When does this invention
come along or this innovation anyway, So the concept of
an eraser itself certainly predates the pencil really because scribes
have always made mistakes, They've always needed to remove unwanted

etchings from a manuscript. I think pretty recently we got
a piece of Listener mail with somebody talking about the
use of knives to scrape away ink from parchment. Yeah,
because when you're when you have ink on parchment, especially
pricey parchment, parchment that is valuable and must be used
and reused, Uh, you're gonna have to scrape it off.
So you might use a small knife to do that. Um.

Another thing you might use is a stone or a
bit of dried wax or crustless bread. Was a huge
was it was not just a random thing. It was
like a standard that you would have the bread. There were,
you know, all these little um uh tangents and writings
about saying like the hungry scribes succumbing to their to
their hunger and consuming the bread that they were supposed

to be using to you know, for erasure. Gross. But
of course, the spread of rubber technology ends up changing
all of this. So natural rubber had been used in
Mesoamerica by the Mayans and the text uh you know,
but for uses such as the production of rubber, sports balls, um,
as well as I think like waterproofing and various other

material uses, uh, you know, for which rubber is very
very handy. But then the French bring this material back
to Europe and we go from there. But then in
the late eighteenth century you have a British inventor and
scientific instrument maker come along by the name of Edward
Nairn who lived through eighteen o six, and he starts

selling cubes of rubber for erasure in seventeen seventy, claiming
that he accidentally discovered the use of this use for
rubber when he reached for bread to erase something and
grabbed a chunk of rubber instead from grabbed my trick
rubber sandwich by accident, which, uh, it's a nice story,
but it also sounds like a little it's too much

of a good story, like maybe he was just looking
at it. My my take is it seemed more likely
that you were to kind of looking and I bet
I could erase some something with that, Or maybe he
already ate the bread and just didn't want to admit it.
Narn is an interesting figure even without taking into account
all of this, um, you know, rubber and eraser business
because he made a number of improvements to various scientific

instruments of the day, including the microscope and the telescope,
and he created the first successful marine barometer. Given his
place in the in history, it should come as no
surprise that he corresponded with an individual that we've talked
about in the show before, none other than Benjamin Franklin.
What do you know, Franklin effect, He even made a

set of magnets and a telescope before Benjamin Franklin. So
after this uh discovery slash innovation, uh, the eraser soon
becomes a common companion of the pencil, and Petrovsky points
to various pencil cases uh that included an eraser, you know,
pretty much like a big rectangular lump of an eraser

that is in the case with the pencils. But they
would have still remained separate at the not one unified instrument,
just two instruments that come together. Yes, as far as
we know, they did not actually come together into a
single instrument until the late nineteenth century. So who can
we thank for this invention? Well, looking at Petrovsky's extensive

work as well as a Pagan Kennedy two thirteen New
York Times magazine article who made that built in eraser?
There are three individuals slash entities to highlight here. First
of all, let's look at eighteen fifty eight. Himan Lippmann
of Philadelphia was awarded a patent for his invention of

a pencil with a groove at the tip that could
be that could contain a glued in hunk of rubber
and fun fact here, apparently one of Lippmann's ideas, too,
was that the eraser could be embedded inside the wood shaft,
just like the graph ideas. So you would have to
sharpen both ends of your pencil, one to allow the

graphite to emerge and the other to allow the eraser
to emerge. Maybe, so we go half and half, like
half graphite half eraser, right, Yeah, So that that Pagan
Kennedy article includes a drawing of what this might have
looked like. So that's an interesting alternate reality to consider,
all right. Then, in the early eighteen sixties, the Faber Firm,

the key individual here being uh ebiter Hard Faber. UH
may have been the first company to put out eraser
tipped pencils, as well as uh as pencils that had
like a metal cap on the end as well. Uh.
They had an early eighteen sixties patent for quote a
lead pencil with an angulated rubber seal head which serves

as a seal, a preventer against rolling and as an eraser.
Rolling is an interesting um concept with the pencil, you know,
because you look at a pencil today and certainly the
modern eracer you probably doesn't help prevent rolling. But the
shape of the wood does. You can rest a pencil
on one of its sides. Well, you're you're talking about

what like the hexagonal cross section pencils, Yeah, which I
guess they're the most common type. Though. I remember when
I was a kid, I had perfectly round pencils, and well,
and I'm sure we have we do have some perfectly
round pencils in our house. I think some colored pencils particularly,
and of course they roll all over the place. But
this this uh, this fine Taikonderoga pencil in front of

me here yet it can I can put it on
the desk and it stays put. It's very well behaved. Yes,
all right, and then uh. In eighteen sixty two, entrepreneur
Joseph Reckendorff sought to improve on Littman's patent. So he
bought the patent for a hundred thousand dollars, which is
about two million dollars in todays dollars, and then he

sued a favor for infringement. As Kennedy writes, uh if
all you know, if this would have held up, he
would have become a titan industry. He would have been
the master of the modern eraser tipped pencil. But the U. S.
Supreme Court ruled in eighteen seventy five that the eraser
tipped pencil didn't count as a legitimate invention because he

was simply combining to existing and widespread inventions into a
new product. So my alarm clock toaster has no hope.
What's kind of like there was an episode of Uh
Fly of the Concords where there was a character who
had a camera phone and it was like a camera
glued to a phone. It's kind of like that. Yeah,

with the with with the pencil eraser, you've just taken
an eraser and and fixed it on the end. I
guess there's an argument that you're not really inventing something,
but it does feel big. It does feel huge. I
I to a certain extent. I it's a fantas sorry
for this guy. Yeah, it's a fantastic leap forward in convenience.
I think that counts as an invention, though, I guess

you you just have to have some kind of subjective
judgment about how innovative the linking of the two things
actually is. Yeah. One thing we forgot to cover, which
I also remember from my childhood, or pencils or pins
they're capped in something other than a metal tip or
a race like a couchh ball or um. I've seen

them too, where you have like a dusting implement for
like a computer screen thing or some sort of like
toy or gadget. Oh I had one. This This is
a big memory for me because I remember buying it
and being super proud of the purchase, and I'm really
being proud of it for a number of years. Is
that I had a Gremlin's two pencil that was capped
in a grimlin uh that as if it were like

it was perched on the pencil top like it was.
It was like holding onto the pencil and I love
that thing. I don't think I ever sharpened it. I
was so proud of it. That's so good. I wish
I had had that. I think I had like a
tazz that could go over the back of the pencil,
which I don't know. I don't want out myself as
a taz guy. But but no, it comes back to

how I think as children, we would fetishize the pencil,
and we would we would. I mean a lot of times,
especially I mengtioned in cases where you have like school uniforms.
You know, you want to stand out, you want to
say something with your choice of writing implement. That is
very true. Yeah, well, I mean it goes beyond just
like decorations for the pencils. You'd have different kinds of pencils,

like the wacky pencils of course, have been around in
different things that I remember people at my school being
very into like the gel pens that seemed almost like
it like an identity forming kind of signal. Er Yeah. Now,
speaking of the eraser, uh, Petrovsky rites that as erasers
became more and more popular, there was actually kind of
a backlash to them. It's kind of almost like a

future shock technological anxiety concerning uh, the erase ability of text,
and people were saying, well, how do I how do
I write with a pencil so nobody erases it. How
can I protect my writings from a racier? And so
there were you know, people were giving advice on how
to do this or also how to treat the paper
after you've written, say with I think they were talking

about using a milk wash on the paper. Um so um,
I think that's interesting as well. Like it just a reminder, Yeah,
that anytime there's some sort of new technology, certainly of
it affects the way that we're using language or using
the written word. Uh, it can cause a bit of

h you know, it can stir up anxiety, It can
stir up a little fear, even because it's it's changing
how we express ourselves, how we define ourselves. Yeah, I
mean people, well, people reacting to the concept and of
an invention without considering the practicality of what it is
they're worried about, Like it would be easier to just
burn somebody's writings than to erase everything they had written down,

and that that burning technology has existed for quite a while. Yeah.
Or it also gets down to the fact of how
do you how do you? How how does forgery work?
Forgery comes back to the very principles of writing. We
began with you can there's additive forgery, but there's also
subtractive forgery. You know, you can if you want to
change the grade on your test that's being sent home

that your teacher wrote in red ink, Well you can
get yourself a red pen and that that f becomes
a be rather easily. Right. But then the truth comes
to collect at the end of the semester, when your
final grades come in. The harder to alter you can
only Uh, forgery is only gonna get you so far.
All right, Well, there you have it. Uh, that's the
pencil in a nutshell. But obviously there are a number

of different roads that we did not take here that
we could easily come back to. We could discuss the
pen for at least an episode, because there are a
number of different innovations with the ink pen over the
years that are worth discussing. UM. For for that matter, UM,
written language is a big one, UM, and then the

various forms of writing. Also rubber rubber technology, UH technology
that comes in the wake of rubber. There's a lot
of fun we could have with that as well. Absolutely.
In the meantime, if you want to check out other
episodes of Invention what you can go to invention pod
dot com and that will shoot you over to a
place where you can listen to and download the show,

where you can subscribe. Basically, you can get the show
wherever you get your podcasts these days, wherever that happens
to be. Just make sure that you rate, review, and subscribe.
Those are the things that really help us out and
check out our other show as well. Stuff to blow
your mind if you haven't already. Again, we have an
excellent episode on lead uh that you can check out,
and we we cover language a lot on that show,

so it's a good place to to look for more
on related topics. Huge thanks as always to our excellent
audio producer Seth Nicholas Johnson. If you'd like to get
in touch with us with feedback on this episode or
any other to suggest topic for the future, just to
say hello, you can email us at contact at invention
pod dot com. Invention is production of I Heart Radio.

For more podcasts from my art radio, visit the i
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