Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

I, Pencil: A Brilliant Vintage Allegory of How Everything Is Connected

“If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.”

For an object this seemingly simple, the pencil is not only an artifact with a remarkably fascinating history but also an enduring staple of creative culture — from John Steinbeck, who kept exactly twelve sharpened pencils on his desk at all times, to David Byrne, who captured the human condition in pencil diagrams. But although it is one of humanity’s humble masterpieces of design and ingenuity, we continue to underappreciate the pencil’s genius.

In 1958, libertarian writer and Foundation for Economic Education founder Leonard Read (September 26, 1898–May 14, 1983) set out to remedy this civilizational injustice in a marvelous essay titled “I, Pencil,” published in Essays on Liberty (public library). In a clever allegory, Read delivers his enduring point about the power of free market economy. Casting the pencil as a first-person narrator, he illustrates its astounding complexity to reveal the web of dependencies and vital interconnectedness upon which humanity’s needs and knowledge are based, concluding with a clarion call for protecting the creative freedom making this possible.

Drawing by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Read begins:

I am a lead pencil — the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.

Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do.

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery—more so than a tree or a sunset or even a flash of lightning. But, sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For, as a wise man observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

Half a century before Thomas Thwaites set out to illustrate the complex interdependencies of what we call civilization by making a toaster from scratch, Read writes:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me — no, that’s too much to ask of anyone — if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because — well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.

Tracing the pencil’s journey from raw material — “a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon” — to the hands of “all the persons and the numberless skills” involved in its fabrication, Read considers the rich cultural and practical substrata of all these skills and production mechanisms:

Consider the millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are cut into small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness. These are kiln dried and then tinted for the same reason women put rouge on their faces. People prefer that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The slats are waxed and kiln dried again. How many skills went into the making of the tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires? Sweepers in the mill among my ancestors? Yes, and included are the men who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company hydroplant which supplies the mill’s power!

Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the nation from California to Wilkes-Barre!

He goes on to delineate the global reaches of the production process — from the pencil’s lead derived from graphite mined in Ceylon to Mexican candelilla wax used used to increase its strength and smoothness to the rapeseed oil Dutch East Indies involved in the creation of its “crowning glory,” the eraser — ultimately pointing to the pencil as a supreme example of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” at work:

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others… There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field — paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in the first grade. Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.

Above all, Read suggests, the pencil attests to the godliness of the human capacity for connected imagination. In a sardonic dual jab at religious creationism and excessive government control, Read summons the last line from Joyce Kilmer’s 1918 poem “Trees” and writes:

It has been said that “only God can make a tree.” Why do we agree with this? Isn’t it because we realize that we ourselves could not make one? Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot, except in superficial terms. We can say, for instance, that a certain molecular configuration manifests itself as a tree. But what mind is there among men that could even record, let alone direct, the constant changes in molecules that transpire in the life span of a tree? Such a feat is utterly unthinkable!

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies — millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand — that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding — then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free men. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

Just a few years earlier, pencil-lover Steinbeck had written in East of Eden: “The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.” Whether Read read Steinbeck and succumbed to cryptomnesia or arrived at this strikingly similar sentiment independently is only cause for speculation, but his larger point — one as pertinent to public policy as it is to the private creative endeavor — is what endures with its own timeless miraculousness:

If I, Pencil, were the only item that could offer testimony on what men can accomplish when free to try, then those with little faith would have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore; it’s all about us and on every hand. Mail delivery is exceedingly simple when compared, for instance, to the making of an automobile or a calculating machine or a grain combine or a milling machine or to tens of thousands of other things. Delivery? Why, in this area where men have been left free to try, they deliver the human voice around the world in less than one second; they deliver an event visually and in motion to any person’s home when it is happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one’s range or furnace in New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy; they deliver each four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our Eastern Seaboard — half-way around the world — for less money than the government charges for delivering a one-ounce letter across the street!

The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

Half a century after Read penned his brilliant essay, it was adapted into an animated film illustrating how the same “complex combination of miracles” plays out on various scales in our modern lives:

For an equally pause-giving contemporary counterpart, see The Toaster Project.

Perhaps Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer — and what, if not computing, is the height of Read’s miraculous web of know-hows? — put it best when she wrote that “everything is naturally related and interconnected.”

Published June 3, 2015




Filed Under

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated