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In 1821, Charles Dunbar discovered graphite in New Hampshire. In those days they called graphite "plumbago." Dunbar set up a pencil factory with his brother-in-law, John Thoreau. When that plumbago ran out, they went to Massachusetts and then Canada. They made a good start, considering the poverty of American graphite. Most of it had a greasy, smeary, quality. English graphite was the best available, but it cost an arm and a leg.
John Thoreau's son, Henry David, was raised in the business. He studied at Harvard through the mid-1830's, but he also kept a hand in the business. Pencil leads were made by filling a groove in a piece of wood with a mixture of ground graphite and some kind of binder. Henry David Thoreau worked on the problem of making a better pencil out of inferior graphite.
He solved the problem by using clay as the binder. With clay he created a superior, smear-free pencil whose hardness was controllable. He made the Thoreau company into America's leading pencil maker.
That catches us off guard. Was the great transcendentalist, who rose above himself on the shores of Walden Pond, a successful inventor? Was this the same man who formulated the idea of civil disobedience? Was this the person who so effectively armed Gandhi and Martin Luther King?
Thoreau's clay-mixed graphite wasn't entirely original. The Germans had used something like it a few years earlier. It's not clear whether Thoreau had any inkling of the German process. But what is clear is that he transcended it. He developed a new grinding mill. He developed all sorts of process details. Historian Henry Petroski adds to the list of Thoreau's inventions -- a pipe forming machine, water wheel designs. They probably never told you in your English class that Thoreau often signed the words "Civil Engineer" after his name.
Yet Thoreau was content to walk away from an invention without making personal profit of it. He was, after all, the same man who wrote
... the seventh day should be man's day of toil ... and the other six his Sabbath of the affections and the soul -- in which to range this widespread garden, and drink in the soft influences and sublime revelations of Nature ...
Henry David Thoreau is sometimes painted as ineffective in the real world. He certainly did separate himself from the mad ambitions of mid-nineteenth century America.
But his legacy to us was shaped by an engineer's intimacy with firm-rooted reality. He knew the shores of Walden Pond were solid earth, as much as they were a flight of the mind.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
The Blackwing used a special eraser ferrule, which required special clips that could only be manufactured by a custom-made machine. By the time Eberhard Faber was acquired by Faber-Castell in 1994, this machine was broken; however, a sufficient backstock of ferrule clips enabled Blackwing manufacture to continue until 1998. At this point, the company ceased production on the Blackwing, claiming it was not commercially successful.
Initially sold for 50 cents each, as of 2012 reproduction pencils, called the "Palomino Blackwing 602" and made by California Cedar, are available in packages of 12 for 20 dollars.
So the right pencil is important to me. Years ago, at a stationery store in Harvard Square called Bob Slate’s, I discovered the best pencil ever. It was called the Blackwing 602, made by Eberhard Faber. It was perfectly designed, hexagonal so it wouldn’t roll off your desk, with lead that was creamy soft but not too soft. A great oblong eraser you could pull out to extend its use. Its embossed motto: “Half the pressure, twice the speed.” (Who wouldn’t want half the pressure and twice the speed?) In a world of yellow pencils it was silvery gray.
Then one day I went into Slate’s and learned, to my horror, that the Blackwing 602 was no more. It had been discontinued. Frantic, I launched into action. I enlisted my assistant to call every stationery distributor, every mom-and-pop stationery store in the country, and buy up as many boxes of Blackwings as we could find. In time, we’d amassed a closet full of them.
When the terrible news spread throughout the Blackwing Underground, my fellow obsessives began buying them up too. Writer friends of mine who learned of my stockpile — Andre Gregory (of “My Dinner With Andre”) and Roger Rosenblatt — began calling me to ask if I could spare one . . . or a box. Soon, Blackwings began popping up on eBay for $20 each. In fact, I just checked eBay and found one for $38.99 — for a single pencil.
I think all pencils should be banned tbh, but assault pencils is a good start