The point of it all

Asa Briggs

  • The Pencil: A History by Henry Petroski
    Faber, 434 pp, £14.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 571 16182 0

‘What in its fullest sense is the idea conveyed in the respective words Paper, Pen and Ink?’ asked George Wilson, a future Regius Professor of Technology at Edinburgh University. The subtitle of his article, ‘Paper, Pen and Ink’, published in Macmillans Magazine in 1859, was ‘an excursus in technology’, and he went on to survey all kinds of pens including, by a convenient extension of the word ‘pen’, ‘printer’s type, the pen of civilisation’, ‘the electric telegraph, the world’s shorthand pen’, and the chisel, ‘by which cathedrals and Sebastopols are written in granite, and gods and men in marble’. The pen for Wilson represented ‘every graphic tool by which painting, writing, printing, carving, inscribing or imprising is affected’.

More than a hundred and thirty years later, an American author, this time a Professor of Civil Engineering – at Duke University – has tried to do for the pencil what Wilson did for the pen, although more ambitiously and at far greater length. Petroski goes further than Wilson in claiming that once we know ‘the story of the pencil in the world’ we will know much also about engineering, including both ‘the inescapable business of technology’ and its ‘mythical proportions’. ‘To reflect on the pencil is to reflect on engineering.’ Indeed, ‘the pencil in our hand can be the automobile in our garage, the television in our home, the clothes, on our back.’

These are bold claims, given that technology is concerned with power as well as with design and function, and given that pencils, unlike steam engines or word-processors, depend mainly on human power for their use. Petroski, a civil not a mechanical or electrical engineer, is in the same line, however, as his compatriot Samuel C. Flosman who produced his engaging book of essays The Civilised Engineer in 1975 to complement his earlier book The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. Petroski’s earlier books include Engineering Essays and Other Attempts to Figure without Equations. There is a background, therefore, to the claims made in The Pencil, which deals, not with great engineering projects, but with a ‘humble’ but ubiquitous object which everyone knows and which sells at the rate of 14 billion a year.

The humility of an object in use is no barrier to rhetorical declarations of pride in its virtues, as the Victorians were the first to recognise; and any curious student of Victorian things, as Petroski shows himself to be, will note at once that there is no shortage of rhetoric either in his book, where most of it is quoted from other sources, usually for fun, or in Wilson’s article, where all the rhetoric is his own. The rhetoric is significantly different, however, for Wilson, described in the Dictionary of National Biography not only as an engineer but as a ‘chemist and religious writer’, ended his highly rhetorical account of the pen not with technology but with theology. God had been content to write His will on the frailest things, and one day ‘the lettered firmament of heaven’ would see ‘all its scattered stars fall like the ruined typesetting of a printer into one tangled mass’. Professor William Thomson had explained it all. God, however, was eternal, and through Him we would – or could – partake in His immortality. The nibs of our pens might rust the ink might fade, and the paper might perish. More seriously, perhaps, what we had written might itself lose its point. It was the writer, therefore, who would – or could – be immortal, ‘not the writing’.

There is no theology in Petroski, and when he turns to the long-term fate of the pencil, an instrument committed in large part to ephemeral or provisional purposes, it is objects as such, including erasers, that he considers and not ultimate entropy or salvation. So far, so good. Typewriters have not driven out pencils. Nor have computers. Pencils still sell in huge quantities. But there are some signs that the language of the computer has taken over at least in parody.

In an article in the magazine Byte, Philip Schrodt, not clearly identified by Petroski, has described the pencil as a generic word-processor and the pencil point as ‘the character insertion sub-unit’. Petroski himself concludes, after a detailed study of how the pencil was perfected as a product, that ‘understanding the obstacles that must be overcome in identifying, obtaining and processing the right materials for pencil leads, which sometimes have the right properties for writing and sometimes do not, helps us to appreciate the triumph of the silicon chip.’

Wilson had little to say about the pencil: what it achieved was too ephemeral. Nor did John Middleton Murry in his book called Pencillings, where despite his title, he left the pencil alone: instead, he included one chapter on ‘The Golden Pen’. It was left to Nabokov to produce an alternative view of the writer’s contribution to history from that of Wilson: ‘I have written – often several times – every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.’ Thoreau, at first sight a surprising character in Petroski’s story, worked with his father to produce the best American lead pencils of the 1840s, but he, too, had left the pencil out: when he made a list of essential supplies for a 12-day excursion into the woods of Maine, he included a length of strong cord, matches and old newspapers – but no pencil.

Petroski loves such details, and tells with sympathy and understanding, first, how the modern pencil evolved from the lead stylus, and, second, how pencil-making changed from being a cottage industry, as it was in Thoreau’s time, to become a research-based industry. The story has an economic rather than a religious moral. When Adam Smith talked of pens and the beauties of the division of labour, he might just as well have been talking about pencils; and following in his footsteps Milton Friedman, from a 20th-century vantage-point, considers the pencil to be ‘a neat lesson in free-market economies’. ‘The magic of the price system gets thousands of people to co-operate so that we may buy a pencil for a trifling sum.’ It was calculated in the 1950s that it would cost a do-it-yourself addict about fifty dollars to make a single wood-cased pencil.

As late as 1771, at the beginning of the decade of Smith’s Wealth of Nations and of James Watt’s steam engine, the Encyclopaedia Britannica could still define pencils, not as lead pencils with points, but as brushes of hair or bristles used by artists to lay on colours, and could list the materials employed in their making as ‘boars’ bristles, camels’, badgers’ and squirrels’ hair, and the down of swans’. Etymologists still note that one Latin word for ‘brush’ (penicillum) was penicilus, a diminutive form of penis, the Latin word for ‘tail’. There is ample scope for speculation here, yet, broad-ranging though he is in his intellectual perspectives, Petroski recoils, perhaps wisely, from a ‘narrow focus on etymology’, and despatches Freud from his pages with the brisk sentence: ‘Our interests are better served by looking at the functional rather than the Freudian antecedents of the object.’

Consciousness is all in this fascinating book, and the semiologists are banished as briskly as the psychologists – and without any mention. Instead, we get an anthology of rhetorical tributes to the pencil, the most appalling of them emanating from an anonymous source:

I am the pencil, the first chronicler of new-born thought. I come from the sleeping granite beds, and the balsamic frills of kingly cellars. In my heart, I carry the black carbon of Pluto’s world – half-brother to the diamond. I memorandum the business of continents, and strike the trial balance on the traffic of nations. I am the hub in the wheel of history – the keystone in the structure of fact ...

Better by far Thoreau’s silence or Friedman’s tribute than such paeans of praise.

Pencils containing graphite had been invented more than two hundred years before Smith (no one knows the precise date of the invention), and in Smith’s time the best graphite (plumbago), which came from Britain, came not from an industrialised part of the country or from a part of the country that would soon be industrialised, but from Cumberland. Wordsworth’s name does not figure in Petroski’s pages, but Borrowdale does. There is, indeed, as Petroski notes, more than one cross-reference to Nature in the story of the pencil besides that to Thoreau. In 1844, for example, the pioneer English photographer Fox Talbot was to call his first book Pencil of Nature, although it was illustrated not with sketches but with photographs.

In 1869 the Borrowdale mines ran dry, and from a British, not an American, point of view, the subsequent economic history of the pencil, like so much else in economic history, is the story of an early lead, in this case literally lead, becoming a handicap. Already during the French Revolution Carnot had commissioned an inventor, Nicolas-Jacques Conté, to produce a native pencil, and Conté had responded in 1794 with what soon became the international pencil: the lead in it was made up of a mixture of water, graphite and clay, and was shaped into long thin rods before being baked in moulds: the wood into which the lead was inserted was grooved and after the insertion was slotted and glued.

There was to be no French monopoly in invention, and by the end of the 19th century, when many ‘improvements’ had been introduced, it was the Germans who were ahead. Indeed, already by the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the word ‘faber’ was being used as a generic name for pencil. Fabers was an old Nuremberg firm (the location in a city of printers is significant) that had produced pencils before Conté, and during the decade before 1851 it was already exporting pencils to the United States as well as to Britain. After 1856 its greatest strength lay in its access to Siberian graphite, and it could now expand in scale. The Russians seem to have made little use of their own graphite, and there is a twist in the story of the pencil in that after the Revolution Lenin asked Armand Hammer to start a pencil factory there.

Petroski’s account covers many countries, including, of course, the United States and Japan. There were already 117 Japanese pencil factories in 1918, and they were exporting 200 million pencils a year. Not surprisingly, Petroski introduces in his preface the question: ‘Are American pencils better than Russian or Japanese pencils?’ The answer is not clear. As he points out, few technical papers have been produced in the pencil industry, an industry of secrets, and advertisements, with all their perils, have to be a major source for the historian. There is relatively little theory in the evolution of the industry, too, although ‘the problem of the strength of the pencil point is essentially the same as that of Galileo’s cantilever beam with the paper pressing up on the point instead of the weight hanging down from the end.’

Talk of theory draws Petroski into a comparison between pencils and bridges, the latter for long the favourite study of ‘civilised engineers’, who greatly prefer bridges – and their agreeable associations – to machines. ‘Engineering,’ he insists, ‘always has been and always will be more than mere application of mathematical theories and physical principles,’ and in each engineering development, including that of the pencil, the role of theory has to be considered separately: ‘In the case of bridges, in which a long history of actual structures built by stonemasons and carpenters carried the theory of structures across gaps of scientific knowledge into the new frontiers of experience, the growing body of theory also helped design innovative and bolder bridges. But an artifact like the wood-cased pencil, manufactured in quantity rather than constructed in unique examples, thus risking in its failure perhaps only a family’s fortune rather than a community’s health and safety, is able to advance well into its maturity without the need of any equations explaining a priori its behaviour or sharpening its point.’

Having touched briefly on scale, Petroski insists, however, that ‘the power of engineering science, which is essential for modern research and development, is in its ability to generalise and to explain why existing things work, whether those things be steam boilers or pencils, and thereby to predict how new and improved things should work, thus being the very source of new and improved designs.’

Such conclusions stand after most of the rhetoric – and for that matter the fun – has been swept aside, although there may be a touch of rhetoric here also. If for Wilson it is the Word of the Lord, not written in pencil, that abideth forever, for Petroski it is the creative power of the engineer, he who has changed God’s universe and will continue to change it. And for that reason Petroski is right to suggest that it is not only the history of the pencil that has been neglected but the history of the engineer. There are Nobel Prizes in Science, but none in Engineering, and the media on both sides of the Atlantic devote less attention to engineering than to science and the arts. Indeed, there is little public awareness of the creative side of the engineer’s role, except in the presence of a great engineering project like a dam, or a bridge. How far lack of awareness is a question of images and how far a question of education remains open. In this country the failure to secure students for attractive engineering courses has often been attributed to the unimpressive image of the engineer. In the United States, where large numbers of students are attracted, there is concern inside universities about the content and approach of courses in engineering. They do not generally meet the requirements of ‘civilised engineers’ like Petroski or design specialists like David Pye. Moreover, in both countries, concern about ‘public images’ starts with the engineers themselves.

As far as Britain is concerned, a contrast is sometimes drawn between Wilson’s times, the times of Samuel Smiles’s Lives of the Engineers, when engineers had great prestige – they were even thought of as the heroes of society – and our own times, when they are often thought of at best as people fulfilling contracts drawn up by others and at worst as insensitive despoilers of the environment. Petroski, writing from Duke, naturally says nothing of this, although, having treated the pencil as a paradigm, he does juxtapose on his very last page two memorable sentences: ‘the unchallenged supremacy of the English lead pencil is a thing of the past,’ and ‘the ultimate triumph of the American pencil could serve as an inspiration for the future.’