The best input device of the past and future

Future Tense for Mar. 6, 2007

By Steve Welker

Hand me a pencil. I need to make a note of this. School starts Aug. 27.

Last week, a Mount Airy News story reported on school preparations for the start of classes, prompting me to download the supply list for my high-school sophomore. That same day, the new L.L. Bean catalog promised a free pencil case with every backpack, reminding me to check my son's book bag.

My son will need a backpack -- or perhaps a wheelbarrow -- to move his supplies to school. Among other things, he must have a Texas Instruments calculator, highlighters in multiple colors, two to three 3-ring binders with dividers, loose-leaf paper, one or two boxes of Kleenex, spiral-bound composition books, ballpoint pens and No. 2 pencils (“Buy in bulk, if possible”). At least the pencils weigh next to nothing.

Kids in Iraq would appreciate having the pencils, if nothing else, as actor Gary Sinise (Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump”) learned during a USO tour when he visited a village school near Baghdad.

“The kids just didn't have very much,” he said. “I saw three, sometimes four kids packed around one little desk, and they were sharing a pencil.”

Sinise and author Laura Hillenbrand (“Seabiscuit”) subsequently started Operation Iraqi Children to collect donated school supplies and ship them to U.S. soldiers for distribution to Iraqi schoolchildren. Last year, 150 tons of school supplies (plus soccer balls, shoes and a one-time-only load of Beanie Babies) went to an estimated 250,000 kids.

“Just put some pencils in a bag, give 'em to us and we'll get 'em to the kids over there,” Sinise said.

Pencils are so cheap and commonplace that most Americans take them for granted. Not everyone, though. My dad, a civil engineer, never left the house without a couple of mechanical drafting pencils in his shirt pocket (usually Eversharp Autopoints, later Pentel Sharps). He sketched construction designs with A.W. Faber Castell wood pencils (I still have a half-filled tin box of his 4B's in a desk drawer). And he drew blueprints with Staedtler or Koh-I-Noor leadholders honed to needle-like sharpness by a well-used Tru-Point.

Every carpenter's toolbox probably contains a few flat-edged pencils, because nothing else draws a better 8-foot-long, unwavering, unbroken line before you rip a wood plank.

Artists and cartoonists usually sketch in pencil before they turn to paint or ink and Galax's own Willard Gayheart needs nothing but a pencil to capture the beauty and personality of Appalachian life.

Millions of yellow Ticonderoga No. 2's and Eberhard Mongols have served children faithfully through the years.

I started in this business when copy editors and proofreaders still corrected reporters' stories with pencils. Many of us used a Sanford Ebony or Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602. Both pencils had soft, black 4B lead, but the smooth-writing Blackwing 602 had a convenient rectangular eraser. When production of Blackwing 602's ended in 1998, devoted artists, writers and designers stocked up as many as they could. You occasionally see Blackwing 602s on eBay nowadays for $15 to $20 each. Compare that with a bulk package of 48 standard pencils costing $2.24 at Staples, or less than 5 cents per pencil.

There's a tremendous amount of technology and history packed into that 5-cent package.

Ancient Greeks used slivers of lead as markers and later civilizations used chalk, charcoal and other powdery substances. Then in 1564, a storm brought down a tree in Borrowdale, England, and exposed a unique deposit of a previously unknown ore. It looked like lead, but in fact was almost pure carbon graphite. Cut easily into thin strips and wrapped with string or clamped between two pieces of wood for strength, Borrowdale plumbago became the first pencil lead and soon a major British export.

Nothing else at the time wrote so well -- graphite does not fade or drip and it is weatherproof -- but England controlled the supply. Napoleon, needing pencils for the French army, ordered his chemists to find a substitute. An officer, Nicholas Jacque Conté, came up with the solution in 1795. He mixed lower-quality powdered graphite with clay and water, extruded the doughy paste in spaghetti-like strands and baked them in a 1,700-degree kiln. Varying the mix of clay and graphite (more clay makes a harder lead) and occasionally adding ingredients (carbon black gives Mirados their deep richness and wax helps them write so smoothly), pencilmakers still use this method. Artists' colored pencils are named in Conté's honor.

To make a basic wood pencil, manufacturers drop the graphite ceramic into a groove cut in a thin sheet of wood (usually incense cedar from California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, because it is strong, does not split and can be easily sharpened; much-inferior pencils use wood composites). Then they spread on a layer of glue, press down another slab of wood and, when the glue is dry, cut the wood into individual pencils that can be shaped into squares and rectangles, ellipticals and circles or familiar six-sided hexagons.

U.S. manufacturers produce about 2 billion pencils per year in 350 styles and 72 colors. The black ones alone come in 19 degrees of hardness (the harder the pencil lead, the less graphite it lays down).

Pencil aficionados argue about the best pencil, but for the money it's probably a Sanford (or Berol) Turquoise. They're made with so much attention to detail and consistency that it's said an artist cannot tell the difference between one made 10 years ago and one fresh out of a new box. They cost 90 cents to a dollar each.

Even at that price, a wood-cased pencil is a bargain. A standard, 7-inch pencil will draw a line 35 miles long or write 45,000 words (a ballpoint pen, by comparison, writes about 1.5 to 2 miles). It can be sharpened 17 times (a curious fact: American sharpen their pencils with a long tapering point, but less wood supports the lead so it breaks more often; Europeans and Asians use a short, more heavily angled taper, but must sharpen their pencils more frequently). A pencil writes in any position, including upside-down, and can be used, without modification, under water or in outer space.

And perhaps most miraculously of all, a simple pencil can change an Iraqi schoolchild's life now ... and in the future.


On the Web: Operation Iraqi Children.

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