Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Thoreau and the American Pencil

Lakshmi Ananth, my colleague at Suite101, has a long standing appreciation of pencils as writing instruments par excellence. Here is an interesting piece she has written about Henry Thoreau the inventor and the story of the American pencil:

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Very few people are aware that the hermit of Walden made significant contributions to the field of engineering before he turned his attention to civil disobedience.  But it is fitting that the list of inventions of the simple transcendentalist who influenced  the  likes  of Gandhi and Martin Luther King should include the humble pencil.

Before Thoreau, the American pencil was an inferior version of its European cousin – made from the scarce and mediocre graphite available in America, its lead smudging and easily crumbling.  With war came the ban on exports from England and the price of European graphite skyrocketed.  And seemingly nothing could be done to improve the quality of pencils made from locally available graphite.

Henry David Thoreau literally grew up in the pencil manufacturing business.  His father John Thoreau owned a pencil factory with brother-in-law Charles Dunbar who discovered graphite in the New Hampshire region.

Pencils were made by combining graphite with a binder and pouring the mixture into wooden slats with grooves.  Thoreau modified the process by using clay for the binder.  The result was a pencil whose lead did not easily disintegrate and didn’t smear.  John Thoreau pencils became much sought after, a success even with artists and draughtsmen.
Thoreau also revolutionized several details in the manufacturing process, inventing machines to grind the graphite and bore holes in wood.  Although the Germans were already pioneers in pencil making, the American pencil owes its present shape to the ingenuity of Henry David Thoreau.

Consistent with his nature, Thoreau did not benefit from his innovation at all – no patents, no profits and hardly any recognition as a pencil engineer.  And little did he value his own invention.  The pencil did not figure in his list of essentials for a 12-day excursion into the Maine woods although he must have used it extensively to record his journal.  Or was it such an integral part of him that he failed to think of it separately as a requirement, as he did paper or matches? 

Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new. – H.D.Thoreau

But the humble pencil, still selling in millions in these days of hand-held computers and pixels, when the word notebook has taken a whole new meaning, is one fashion that seems to have transcended the times.

Henry Petroski, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, Knopf 1992

More on Thoreau and the American pencil, see  "Machine in the Wetland: Re-imagining Thoreau's Plumbago-Grinder" by Randall Conrad.


  1. I shall have thoughts of Thoreau and his essay "Walking" when I begin to use my recently ordered Palomino Blackwing 602's. After a diet of Staedtler and Faber Castell it will be nice to sample some American fare. Ah, those rambling back country walks... too bad I live in a city.

  2. Nobody cares Kevin