Friday, 4 December 2009

Thomas Edison's Pencil

"I like my pencil best. A fountain pen has always been a mystery to me",

Thomas Edison had allegedly said. Where is the original source of this pronouncement? I am yet to find it in any other source apart from blogs, Readers Digest and antiquarian books websites. Joe Nickell in his Detecting Forgery reiterates the great inventor's love for pencils and cites Petroski's The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance as his source.

Eagle Pencil Company, ca. 1870-90, Robert Dennis collection of stereoscopic views; 
New York Public Library's Digital Library

Reportedly Thomas Edison had his pencils custom-made by the Eagle Pencil Company, one of the "Big Four" American pencil manufacturers of his time. The pencil had to be 3 inches long  (or 3 1/2 or even 4  inches according to another lore) - that is, shorter than the standard so as to fit in his vest pocket. And the graphite  had to be softer than normal. According to Petroski, Edison ordered his pencils in lots of a thousand and once had to write to the Eagle Company complaining that "the last batch was too short" - the pencils "twist and stick in the pocket lining".

U.S. Library of Congress, ca. 1893. Photo by J.M. White & Co.

Edison's Estate comprises at least 4 million pages which include 3,500 notebooks filled with his writings, notes and sketches. While in his lab, at home or out for a walk, Thomas Edison would seize a piece of paper and cover it with pencil illustrations: "this was likely to be accompanied by tricks of tapping with the pencil or of tugging at his busy eyebrows", writes George Bryan in 1926. At home Edison would sit in an easy chair conversing until late "pulling meditatively at his eyebrows" and would eventually get hold of paper and start sketching:
"He is wonderfully handy with the pencil, and will sometimes amuse himself, while chatting, with making all kinds of fancy bits of penmanship, twisting his signature into circles and squares, but always writing straight lines - so straight they could not be ruled truer",
writes Frank Lewis Dyers of Edison, in 1910.

Edison was always seen with a stub of pencil and pad of paper sticking out of his rumpled suit jacket, filling page after page in pencil-stub writing, doing numerous pencil sketches and losing himself in incessant pencil-stub scribble.

Thomas Edison Light Bulb patent application, 1880, spot Edison's signature

 Sources: Joe Nickell, Detecting Forgery: Forensic Investigation of Documents, 2005; George Bryan, Edison: The Man and his Work, 1926; Frank Lewis Dyer, Edison: His Life and Inventions, 1910; Neil Baldwin, Edison: Inventing the Century, 2001. Also Tel Asiado's brief bio of Edison, the most productive  inventor of his time: Thomas Alva Edison, American inventor of electric light bulb, phonograph, cameras.
Thomas Edison's electric pen or pencil found its way into the hands of Leo Tolstoy.

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