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The Surprising History of the Pencil

What medieval smuggling has to do with the atomic structure of carbon.

Having previously explored such mysteries as who invented writing and how sounds became shapes, it’s time to turn to something much less mysterious, a seemingly mundane yet enormously influential tool of human communication: the humble pencil.

“Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak,” states the first of Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules of writing. “But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.” But even though the pencil has fueled such diverse feats of creative culture as celebrated artists’ sketchbooks, Marilyn Monroe’s soulful unpublished poems, Lisa Congdon’s stunning portraits, and David Byrne’s diagrams of the human condition, it has only been around for a little over two hundred years. In the altogether fascinating 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know: Math Explains Your World (public library), John D. Barrow tells the story of this underrated technological marvel:

The modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. The magic material that was so appropriate for the purpose was the form of pure carbon that we call graphite. It was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the fifteenth century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier. Initially it was believed to be a form of lead and was called ‘plumbago’ or black lead (hence the ‘plumbers’ who mend our lead water-carrying pipes), a misnomer that still echoes in our talk of pencil ‘leads’. It was called graphite only in 1789, using the Greek word ‘graphein’ meaning ‘to write’. Pencil is an older word, derived from the Latin ‘pencillus’, meaning ‘little tail’, to describe the small ink brushes used for writing in the Middle Ages.

Nicholas-Jacques Conte

But the history of the pencil, like that of many seminal innovations, has a dark side:

The purest deposits of lump graphite were found in Borrowdale near Keswick [England] in the Lake District in 1564 and spawned quite a smuggling industry and associated black economy in the area. During the nineteenth century a major pencil manufacturing industry developed around Keswick in order to exploit the high quality of the graphite.

And yet the pencil industry blossomed:

The first factory opened in 1832, and the Cumberland Pencil Company has just celebrated its 175th anniversary; although the local mines have long been closed and supplies of the graphite used now come from Sri Lanka and other far away places. Cumberland pencils were those of the highest quality because the graphite used shed no dust and marked the paper very well.

The oldest pencil in the world, found in timbered house built in 1630. (Image: Faber-Castell)

Plain as it appears, however, the pencil has evolved significantly since its invention:

Conte’s original process for manufacturing pencils involved roasting a mixture of water, clay and graphite in a kiln at 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit before encasing the resulting soft solid in a wooden surround. The shape of that surround can be square, polygonal or round, depending on the pencil’s intended use — carpenters don’t want round pencils that are going to roll off the workbench. The hardness or softness of the final pencil ‘lead’ can be determined by adjusting the relative fractions of clay and graphite in the roasting mixture. Commercial pencil manufacturers typically market 20 grades of pencil, from the softest, 9B, to the hardest 9H, with the most popular intermediate value, HB, lying midway between H and B. ‘H’ means hard and ‘B’ means black. The higher the B number, the more graphite gets left on the paper. There is also an ‘F’, or Fine point, which is a hard pencil for writing rather than drawing.

Barrow offers the science behind an oft-cited trivia factlet:

The strange thing about graphite is that it is a form of pure carbon that is one of the softest solids known, and one of the best lubricants because the six carbon atoms that link to form a ring can slide easily over adjacent rings. Yet, if the atomic structure is changed, there is another crystalline form of pure carbon, diamond, that is one of the hardest solids known.

For the mathematically-minded, Barrow offers a delightful curiosity-quencher:

An interesting question is to ask how long a straight line could be drawn with a typical HB pencil before the lead was exhausted. The thickness of graphite left on a sheet of paper by a soft 2B pencil is about 20 nanometers and a carbon atom has a diameter of 0.14 nanometers, so the pencil line is only about 143 atoms thick. The pencil lead is about 1 mm in radius and therefore ? square mm in area. If the length of the pencil is 15 cm, then the volume of graphite to be spread out on a straight line is 150? cubic mm. If we draw a line of thickness 20 nanometers and width 2 mm, then there will be enough lead to continue for a distance L = 150? / 4 X 10-7 mm = 1,178 kilometers.

100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know: Math Explains Your World goes on to explore such fascinating questions as the origami of the universe, what rugby has to do with relativity, how long things are likely to survive, and more.


Turning Abruptly from Friendship to Love: Sartre’s Love Letter to Simone de Beauvoir

“I am mastering my love for you and turning it inwards as a constituent element of myself.”

As a lover of spectacular love letters, especially ones between history’s creative and intellectual power couples — like those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, and Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin — I was delighted to come upon a gem from legendary French existentialist philosopher, novelist, and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre (June 21, 1905–April 15, 1980) to celebrated French writer, intellectual, and feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986).

In this beautiful missive from the spring of 1929, found in the altogether wonderful collection Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone De Beauvoir, 1926-1939 (public library), 24-year-old Jean-Paul writes to 21-year-old Simone de Beauvoir — herself the eventual masterful writer of breakup letters — at the dawn of their romance, shortly before he proposed marriage, which Simone turned down; instead, the two embarked on their famous lifelong open relationship.

My dear little girl

For a long time I’ve been wanting to write to you in the evening after one of those outings with friends that I will soon be describing in “A Defeat,” the kind when the world is ours. I wanted to bring you my conqueror’s joy and lay it at your feet, as they did in the Age of the Sun King. And then, tired out by all the shouting, I always simply went to bed. Today I’m doing it to feel the pleasure you don’t yet know, of turning abruptly from friendship to love, from strength to tenderness. Tonight I love you in a way that you have not known in me: I am neither worn down by travels nor wrapped up in the desire for your presence. I am mastering my love for you and turning it inwards as a constituent element of myself. This happens much more often than I admit to you, but seldom when I’m writing to you. Try to understand me: I love you while paying attention to external things. At Toulouse I simply loved you. Tonight I love you on a spring evening. I love you with the window open. You are mine, and things are mine, and my love alters the things around me and the things around me alter my love.

My dear little girl, as I’ve told you, what you’re lacking is friendship. But now is the time for more practical advice. Couldn’t you find a woman friend? How can Toulouse fail to contain one intelligent young woman worthy of you*? But you wouldn’t have to love her. Alas, you’re always ready to give your love, it’s the easiest thing to get from you. I’m not talking about your love for me, which is well beyond that, but you are lavish with little secondary loves, like that night in Thiviers when you loved that peasant walking downhill in the dark, whistling away, who turned out to be me. Get to know the feeling, free of tenderness, that comes from being two. It’s hard, because all friendship, even between two red-blooded men, has its moments of love. I have only to console my grieving friend to love him; it’s a feeling easily weakened and distorted. But you’re capable of it, and you must experience it. And so, despite your fleeting misanthropy, have you imagined what a lovely adventure it would be to search Toulouse for a woman who would be worthy of you and whom you wouldn’t be in love with? Don’t bother with the physical side or the social situation. And search honestly. And if you find nothing, turn Henri Pons, whom you scarcely love anymore, into a friend.


I love you with all my heart and soul.

* Beauvoir would come to have a number of young female lovers, whom she’d usually introduce to Sartre over the course of their relationship.

Complement with Sartre on why “being-in-the-world-ness” is the key to the imagination and Beauvoir on ambiguity, vitality, and freedom.


James Gandolfini Reads Maurice Sendak’s Most Controversial Book

Two creative icons on the precipice of mortality.

In June of 2013, I attended a wonderful event at New York’s Society of Illustrators celebrating the inimitable Maurice Sendak and the taboos explored in his work. Among the many memorable insights was a passing mention of a reading from Sendak’s 1970 classic In The Night Kitchen (public library) Sopranos star James Gandolfini had done at a 92Y tribute for Sendak’s 80th birthday in 2008. Little did any of us at the event know that mere hours earlier, Gandolfini had been been pronounced dead in an Italian hospital while on vacation with his 13-year-old son. In an even more eerie strike of tragic coincidence, one of the taboos discussed at the lecture was the notion of mortality in Sendak’s books. Thus, for reasons that are threefold obvious, there is hardly a better way to honor both Gandolfini and Sendak than with the original recording of the acclaimed actor’s exquisitely expressive reading of the Sendak classic:

At the lecture, Steven Heller quoted Sendak as having once told him in an interview:

Primarily, my work was an act of exorcism… so I could have peace of mind as an artist.

(How reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s timeless advice to his teenage son, in which he argued that “the point of being an artist is that you may live” and added, “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”)

But In The Night Kitchen, which was a Caldecott honor book in 1971, has a story particularly emblematic of both Sendak’s defiant spirit and the generous, steadfast support of his editor and creative champion, the great Ursula Nordstrom. In 1972, when a school librarian burned a copy of the book in an act of micro-censorship against Sendak’s depiction of his fictional little boy in the nude, a righteously outraged Nordstrom sent said librarian this colorful letter, found in the ever-excellent Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — a fine addition to literary history’s most poignant meditations on censorship:

January 5, 1972

Dear [Redacted]:

Your letter about Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen was delayed in reaching my desk as you sent it to our Scranton, Pennsylvania, division. I am sorry not to have written you more promptly.

I am indeed distressed to hear that in the year 1972 you burned a copy of a book. We are truly distressed that you think it is not a book for elementary school children. I assume it is the little boy’s nudity which bothers you. But truly, it does not disturb children! Mr. Sendak is a creative artist, a true genius, and he is able to speak to children directly. For children—at least up to the age of 12 or 13—are usually tremendously creative themselves. Should not those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses? To me as editor and publisher of books for children, that is one of my greatest and most difficult duties. Believe me, we do not take our responsibilities lightly! I think young children will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react creatively and wholesomely. It is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.

I will send you a few positive comments on this book within the next few days, and I hope you will read them and that you will give the children in your school a chance to enjoy Mr. Sendak’s book.

Yours sincerely,


Complement with Sendak’s darkest yet most hopeful children’s book and Nordstrom on creative integrity in the face of small-mindedness.


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