John Steinbeck had an almost mystical bond with them. Henry David Thoreau produced them. George Washington used them on surveying trips. Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci and Ernest Hemingway made frequent use of them. Here in the United States we buy over two billion a year. And, like policeman, you can never find one when you need one. (Or so it's claimed.)


Early civilizations used rods of metal to make marks on papyrus. Eventually the metal rods were replaced by those made of lead, which made a darker mark. It was poisonous, but of course they didn't realize that. We don't know who first discovered that graphite would make a decent substitute, but it wasn't until 1564, when a large graphite deposit was discovered in Borrowdale, England, that its use would become practical. There was still one major problem. The stuff was extremely brittle. If you've ever tried taking he lead out of a mechanical pencil and writing with it, you know what I mean. Then someone, probably someone with access to lots of trees, got the idea to encase the lead in a wooden holder.

Now you could make your mark. The only drawback to that, came when you wanted to un-make your mark. British scientist Joseph Priestly took a day off from discovering oxygen to solve that one. Somehow he found out that a piece of latex would pick up a mark - erase it. He wasn't a rocket scientist, so he just named it a rubber eraser. This was in 1770. Obviously there were few rocket scientists around in those days, because it wasn't until 1858 that Philadelphian Hyman Lipman got the idea to mount the eraser right on the pencil. (I've read that Europeans still haven't caught onto that one!) Lipman patented the idea and earned himself $100,000. Today they're made out of synthetic rubber, calcium or clay, pumice, color, and oil. And they have their own day, here in the U. S. April 15th, income tax deadline day, fittingly enough, is now "Rubber Eraser Day".

Pencils casings were traditionally made of cedar, left natural so that the quality and grain of the wood could be appreciated. Then, about a hundred years ago, manufacturers began painting the casings and imprinting them with brand names. It was also about this time that China began exporting a graphite that was of a superior quality to that in the West. How did pencil makers let everyone know that their pencil contained the superior ingredient? A little research on someone's part revealed that the Chinese considered the color yellow to be symbolic of respect and of royalty. Chances are three-to-one that you have a bright yellow pencil not too far away. If you only could find it!

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor.

© 1997 David Minor / Eagles Byte