Wednesday, March 30, 2011

All Ranted Out

After the last two days, my ranting gland has stopped secreting. It's not that I don't have anything to rant about (as long as there are Republicans, Democrats, and similar wingnuts available, I'll never run out of material) ... it's just that I don't feel like ranting this morning. I'll do it tomorrow.

Today, let's talk about pencils*.

I learned this morning that today is the anniversary of the day in 1858 when a Philadelphia gentleman named Hyman Lipman patented one of the most amazingly useful things ever: the pencil with an attached eraser. Before that time (and in Europe still today), pencils were just ... well ... pencils, and you needed to search for a rubber eraser each time you made a mistake. Mr Lipman's brilliant idea was to attach the eraser to the pencil, so that you could erase your mistakes on the fly. Here are a few other factoids about pencils of which you may not be aware:

- A common #2 (medium soft) pencil can write an unbroken line about 35 miles long, or the equivalent of about 45,000 words (more if they're short).

- While we often refer to the "lead" in a pencil, the actual filler has been not poisonous lead but non-toxic graphite since the mid-1500's. Pencils were first mass-produced in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1662 (great writers, those Germans). The German word for pencil is Bleistift, or "lead stick."

- Speaking of what pencils are called in other languages, the Russian word for pencil is karandash, from the Turkish word karadash ("black stone"). The French satirist and political cartoonist Emmanuel Poire took his nickname - Caran d'Ache - from that noble Russian word.

- The average pencil in the US is machined into a hexagonal shape so that it won't roll away when you lay it down, and it's yellow because (according to one version of the history) yellow was the traditional color of Chinese royalty, and the best graphite for pencils was mined in China. Another theory is that pencils are yellow to make them easier to see in the clutter on your desk (I like that one).

- One of my favorite quotes about writing is from author John Steinbeck, who once said that "I have owed you this letter for a very long time, but my fingers have avoided the pencil as if it were an old and poisoned tool." Mr Steinbeck didn't really avoid many pencils, though ... he wrote the drafts of his books in pencil, and started every day with 24 freshly sharpened ones lined up on his desk; he was said to have used 300 pencils to write East of Eden, and 60 a day while writing The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row.

- Need pencils? Every pencil your heart could ever desire can be found at

But that's enough about pencils. It's time for me to get the lead out (as pencils did back in the 1500's) and get ready to go to work.

Have a good day. Raise a glass to Hyman Lipman when you have to erase that line. More thoughts tomorrow.


* In the government, we call them "graphite-filled, wood-encased data transcription instruments with attached extraneous data eradicator."


Amanda said...

Interesting post! I like knowing little factoids like these. I love collecting pencils with different designs on them though. My favourites were these ones that had the times tables printed on them. Half of the set was up to 12 times tables and the other half from 13 to 24. Great for school!

Mike said...

Finally, some useful information.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

When one has ranted, pencils are a good thing to chat about.

KathyA said...

I love pencils! And it's funny you mention this today, because this morning I opened a desk drawer and a box of my pretty yellow pencils fell all over the office floor.

allenwoodhaven said...

A piece of useless (until now!)trivia I picked up along the way from who knows where: the metal that attaches the eraser to the pencil is called a ferrule. (The spelling might be a bit off but that's at least close.

Personally, I prefer mechanical pencils. They stay sharp and good ones have a cover for the eraser so they don't get hard form exposure to the air.