(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Henry Petroski’s main point in writing The Pencil is to sharpen his readers’ awareness of the fact that common implements used in daily life—implements that are often taken for granted—reveal much about the social fiber of humankind. Petroski’s approach to history should erase forever the notion that its study necessarily emphasizes considerations of wars and treaties, of despots and those who topple them, of royal genealogies and palace intrigue—if, indeed, such notions still lurk in the public mind.

Near the turn of the century, Marcel Proust was launched on a creative endeavor that eventuated in the six volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931) when the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea unlocked his unconscious and catapulted him into vivid reflections of his early childhood. Petroski, who, until he was forty, used but never meditated profoundly on pencils, had a Proustian experience of sorts when in 1983 he read an article in the Journal of Applied Mechanics on the physics of broken-off pencil points. A Duke University professor of civil engineering, Petroski was fascinated to learn that lead pencil points nearly always break at an angle rather than straight across.

Pursuing this arcane tack, Petroski wrote a specialized scholarly article to explain the phenomenon. In so doing, he launched himself on a research course that has resulted in this 434-page book on the history of the pencil and has elevated the most common writing device to a position of public appreciation that it has never previously enjoyed, despite the fact that fourteen billion of the slender implements are produced worldwide each year. Fifteen percent of the world’s pencils, some two billion, are produced annually in the United States.

Petroski, who writes with the kind of gentle wit required to sustain for 434 pages a discourse as narrowly defined and focused as this one, strays from his point (breaking slantwise) whenever it seems appropriate to lead his readers along byways and over well-calculated, carefully marked detours that are connected to the main discourse but which offer interesting, readable sidelights on it. The author also anticipates the major questions that puzzle readers and cause some of them to chew on their pencils in frustration.

Perhaps the most significant of his explanations has to do with how manufacturers get lead into the wooden grooves of pencils. The select and stalwart minority that has puzzled over this problem at all has probably concluded that the long, hexagonal shaft somehow has a narrow hole drilled in it and that this narrow hole is then filled with lead that flows under pressure from some sort of extruding machine. The wood then is assumed to be coated with its characteristic yellow paint, the color of most wooden pencils. In reality, pencils are not made that way.

The best pencils are made from red cedar, though other woods are used as well, and other materials have been tried by some manufacturers. The wood is carefully cut into long, narrow slats, both flat, and one side is grooved. The thin cylinder of lead is laid into the groove, and the corresponding, mirror-image part of the shaft is glued and placed on top of the bottom piece. The long, slender shafts are then painted, cut to a specified size, stamped with the legend that is to appear on them, and adorned with an eraser bound to the pencil by a ferrule. The best ferrules are said to be brass and to have painted bands around them.

This whole process may sound noncontroversial if not exactly simple. Petroski, however, informs his readers of the politics of pencil making, thereby thickening the plot in the convoluted story his research has uncovered. He tells of how wadd, officially designated graphite in 1789, a year of social discontent, first was discovered at Seatoller Fell near Borrowdale, not far from Keswick in England. Graphite was mentioned in print as early as 1565 in a book Konrad Gesner wrote on fossils. Gesner offers an annotated drawing of graphite secured in a wood holder to be used for writing. Wadd, or a substance much like it, had by that time already been used widely by Cumberland farmers to mark their herds and was called black lead by some, plumbago—the Latin word for “that which acts like lead”—by those with a classical bent.

Borrowdale remained the chief source of graphite for many years, and pencils not unlike the ones most people use every day were made by securing strips of the mineral in wood or other materials. Despite efforts to conserve the Borrowdale supply of graphite, it was exhausted before the middle of the nineteenth century, and other sources had to be found or substitutes devised. Before the...

(The entire section is 1939 words.)