It’s a tool. As is the plough, as are sextants and swords, as is the shovel, as are sickles and hammers, as is the hypodermic syringe (that may carry a lifesaving elixir, an opioid escape or a life saving or a life ending chemical cocktail). Yet, in distinction to those tools, this one, the tool that I talk of now, is by far the more influential. It articulates, crafts, drafts and sketches. It is one that we have all had in our hands at one point in time or more. We use it to colour in shapes etc. as kids at Kindergarten, to spell out words teachers teach us at School. We use it to write shopping lists for trips to Sweihan’s Abu Siraj Supermarket; we use it to organise thoughts and explore our emotions in private diaries. I think it lets is demonstrate we are human kind. It is, as I know you now know, the pencil [take your pick, your etching stick, 9H through HB to 9xxB].
The computer dictates how you do something, whereas with a pencil you are totally free.
— James Dyson, Inventor (1947– )
Put down your pistols, pick up your pencils. Holding them can be therapeutic it can also be fantastically lucrative. As one advertising campaign proclaims, pencils are where it ‘all’ begins – i.e., the ‘it’ is creativity, e.g., the ‘it’ can be influential literature, impressive architecture, iconic furniture (poetic licence permits me to include here other writing instruments such as the quill of the 18th and 19th centuries and the ink pen of the 20th century and the digital stylus/iPencil of the 21st). The pencil, in olden days, was so expensive. Nowadays, it is cheap and everyone can have one. They now come in every shade of the rainbow but for me, I will stick to graphite grey.
The magic ingredient is indeed graphite (a non-metal mineral), but we often call this lead. As do most good things, the word graphite comes from the ancient Greeks ‘graphein’ – in other words it means to write. Pencil is derived from the Latin ‘pencillus’, meaning little tail, to describe the small ink brushes used for writing in the Middle Ages (imagine for a magic moment these writing sticks in the hands of Chaucer, Dante, Machiavelli, Marlowe and last but not least, Shakespeare). According to J. D. Barrow, the modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jaques Conte, a scientist working in the Army of Napoleon Bonaparte. I understand from “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that great inventions are results of war. So my humble black and yellow Germany made Staedtler pencil (Norris HB Art. Nr. 122-HB EAN 40 07817 106365) is a child of long past war. My wood wrapped writing stick is born with blood and death on its hands?
Ideas are elusive things so keep a pad of paper and a pencil at your bedside, by so doing, you can stab them during the night before they get away.
— Earl Nightingale, Commentator (1921–1989)
The strange thing about graphite is that it is a form of pure carbon that is one of the softest solids known to scientists (is a soft solid, an oxymoron?). Yet if the graphite’s atomic structure is changed just a little bit it becomes a diamond; the hardest solid known to us. Carbon Dioxide is CO2 and as every Emirati high school graduate knows, this is a Global Warming Greenhouse gas. Indeed, we learn from Google/Wikipedia that Carbon makes up 18 per cent of me and, my dear reader, you. Pencils can be square, polygonal or round, depending on its intended use. It is know that vocational people do not much love round pencils because they roll off of tables etc. During the nineteenth century a major pencil manufacturing industry developed in Great Britain where Barrow informs us, “the purest graphite can be found.” The first pencil factory says Barrow was opened in England in the 1830s. I’d like to move to the Derwent brand (I’d love to visit the Derwent Pencil Museum, which a BBC website review say is one of the most peculiar days out in the UK; one that will fulfil the hopes and dreams of pencil fanatics everywhere), but I cannot leave my black and yellow stripped German made digging tool.
Without a pencil in my hand I am not me. If I am not me then I’m blunt and need to be sharper, before my ink runs dry I am now going to ‘pencil’ some sagely advice. According to Alison Nastasi, writers like John Steinbeck and Vladimir Nabokov were pencil fanatics. Nabokov (a user of Faber-Castell Blackwing 602s) outlined his novels and used one to write, “It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.” Steinbeck loved the Mongol 480 (Faber-Castell again) as it was topped with a rubber. Nastasi says that Steinbeck used 300 pencils to write East of Eden (who, I wonder, counted them). My sagely advice, I hear you ask. Well dear reader, it is this, read these words—written in/by pencil—by Steinbeck: “The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable element in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.”
Inspirations and/or Recommended Readings
Barrow, J. D. (2010). 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know. London: Random House.
Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton & Company, Inc.
Nastasi, A (2013, August 17). The Writing Tools of 20 Famous Authors. Flavorwire.