People who write notes in ink must be very sure of their thoughts. I write notes in pencil: It seems more polite. Penciled notes are always provisional and erasable. But the apparent humility—or, perhaps, smug performance of humility—in my choice of penciling is counterbalanced by the fact that I eschew the humble wooden pencil. I must have a mechanical pencil, the kind you click to advance the lead. And when I say “a mechanical pencil,” you should know that I mean “lots of mechanical pencils.”
Cheap, plastic mechanical pencils; expensive polycarbonate mechanical pencils; tiny, slim aluminum mechanical pencils; and finely-engineered mechanical drafting pencils: I have them all. I use them to write in my notebooks, in the margins of printed books, and on manuscript paper for musical composition. I am an incorrigible mechanical penciler. I will never have enough mechanical pencils.
A good mechanical pencil is a beautifully-made object. Architects have long sworn by the original German model of my prized Rotring 600, now manufactured in Japan: Its all-metal barrel is hexagonal, so that it doesn’t roll down the drawing-board, and it is an instrument of exquisite heft and balance. (The tactile positivity of its lead-advance button mechanism is a perpetual delight. This pencil is, quite literally, clickbait.) But a mechanical pencil is also, simply, more practical. The existence of pencil sharpeners or pencils shrunk to tiny stumps through long use are just foolish rumors of a bygone age. The ordinary, dumb wooden pencil is, in the poetic words of Henry Petroski—author of The Pencil: A History (1989)—“designed to be destroyed.” A mechanical pencil doesn’t require sharpening and is always the same length, so that its weight and handfeel remain constant. It is obviously an improvement, a superior piece of gear.
When you look into the matter, though, you discover a curious fact: The first known illustration of any pencil depicts something that resembles a mechanical pencil as much as it does the wood-cased kind, in which the lead is permanently bonded to the wood that encloses it. In 1565, the naturalist Konrad Gesner published a book about fossils that featured a drawing of a new kind of writing implement for taking notes in the field, apparently of the author’s own invention. “The stylus shown below,” the accompanying text explains, “is made for writing, from a sort of lead (which I have heard some call English antimony), shaved to a point and inserted in a wooden handle.” So the “lead” (actually graphite) is separable from the handle. But there is no clever mechanism to advance the lead, as one finds in a modern mechanical pencil, so it remains a primitive device.
While the wood-cased pencil soon became commonplace, more sophisticated versions of a rigid sleeve in which the lead could move independently took longer to appear. In one 1636 example, a brass holder used a spring to push out the lead. Henry Petroski thinks this may deserve the title of “the first propelling pencil.” But mechanical pencils really took off only in the 19th century. An English engineer named Sampson Mordan patented his “ever-pointed” pencil in 1822, and the American watchmaker James Bogardus patented his own “forever pointed” pencil in 1833. By the late Victorian era there was a craze for “magic” pencils in brass or gold, disguised as lucky charms and sometimes sold along with matching toothpicks and ear spoons. Such pencils, though, had thick leads, and slack machining tolerances meant that there was a disturbing amount of play in their tips. They were not yet reliable tools for serious writing or drawing.
We still await an ear-spoon revival, but the mechanical pencil enjoyed a second, and permanent, revolution in 1915. In Japan, Tokuji Hayakawa produced a nickel-bodied device, the “Hayakawa Mechanical Pencil," with an internal lead-propelling mechanism of brass and a rifled shaft. Later iterations were christened the “Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil” and then simply the “Ever-Sharp Pencil.” It was such a success that Hayakawa eventually renamed his corporation Sharp—the same company that today is known mainly for its electronics. Similar improvements were made by the American Eversharp pencil, introduced in 1916. Within five years, 12 million Eversharps had been distributed throughout the U.S. The mechanical pencil was promoted as a cost-saving and efficiency-improving measure for office work, since no time was wasted in sharpening it. With advances made by manufacturers in Germany and Japan, it was later enthusiastically adopted by engineers and architects, especially once very fine lead (the now-familiar 0.5-millimeter diameter) became available in specialist drafting pencils in 1961. By the 1970s, more than 60 million mechanical pencils were sold worldwide every year.
In an early example of how office work can be made to sound more exciting by likening it to military adventure, one early-20th-century advertisement boasted: “Eversharp leads are smooth, strong, and fit Eversharp like ammunition fits a gun.” Yet even a premium metal-jacketed mechanical pencil, for all its military-tool bravado, has a crucial weakness. For the mechanical pencil is an exoskeletal organism. Its epidermis provides the structural rigidity within which the vital organ, the lead, is protected. And yet at the same time this thin spindle of graphite must protrude from the body to enable the user to make a mark with it, creating a point of extreme vulnerability.
If the mechanical pencil were a videogame boss, this extrusion of its intestine would be the weak spot the player should target. Here is where the lead so often breaks. This breakpoint has even been subjected to physical analysis by Henry Petroski in another of his books, Invention by Design. Consider the protruding lead, he suggests, as a Galilean cantilever beam. Assuming no flaws or nicks in the lead, it will break precisely at its junction with the pencil’s metal tip.
Many mechanical pencils have another vulnerable part. If the barrel has a clip, it is usually designated a “pocket clip.” But I for one don’t limit my pencil-clipping to pockets. I clip a mechanical pencil to the inside pages of a book I am reading, where it acts as a bookmark as well as a handy instrument of marginalia. I clip mechanical pencils to the rigid covers of Moleskine notebooks. The clips usually tear a few of the inside pages. But it is worth it, to have a notebook with a pencil always attached.
Always, that is, until the clip fails. And it always does. I have many mechanical pencils with broken-off clips. They haunt my desk, mute witnesses to my abuse. Moleskine itself makes a mechanical pencil designed to be attached to its notebooks, with an apparently sturdier clip. But this pencil has a rectangular cross-section. Perhaps it feels comfortable to the notebook, lying flat to its cover. But it is certainly not made for human hands.
What new ideas might remain to be discovered in mechanical pencil land? It was only in the 1980s that manufacturers invented what Henry Petroski calls “truly automatic pencils—ones that feed ultra-thin lead by the action of writing itself.” And to this day, the use of mechanical pencils entails regrettable waste: You have to throw away the last bit of lead when it has become too short to protrude from the tip while being gripped by the pencil’s internal mechanism. This is, as Petroski notes sternly, “one definite shortcoming of mechanical pencils that cries out for improvement.”
Yet other ingenious enhancements have appeared. You can now buy several models of mechanical pencil known as the “Kuru-Toga,” invented by Uniball. The problem its designers noticed was this: If you don’t hold your pencil exactly perpendicular to the page but at an angle, like most people do, then even the fine lead of a mechanical pencil will wear down more quickly on one side. This results in a softer, chisel-shaped point that draws a thicker line. So Uniball’s engineers dreamed up a pencil with an internal geared mechanism that rotates the lead slightly every time it is lifted off the paper. Now the lead is worn down equally on all sides and the chisel-point never appears.
It was only on first trying a Kuru-Toga that I realized I had for decades been unconsciously compensating for the chisel effect myself by turning the mechanical pencil in my fingertips every so often. That there was now no need to do so felt like a weird shift of perspective, a tiny Copernican revolution in my mechanical penciling. A Kuru-Toga, whether in smoky gunmetal plastic or aluminum, feels special enough that when someone in the library walks off accidentally with your branded transparent library bag instead of their own, you feel sad when you remember that you had a Kuru-Toga in that bag.
But this is a general truth: The better your mechanical pencil, the more forlorn you feel when you lose it, as you will inevitably do, for pencils of any kind fall into that class of objects—along with umbrellas, cigarette lighters, and, perhaps, sunglasses—that are somehow more often lost than found, and so never quite permanently the property of any one individual. To spend tens of dollars, then, on a single pencil, let alone hundreds or even thousands (which is eminently possible, should you require a barrel of solid silver or a more precious metal), might seem a quixotic form of tool fetishism. Yet by the same token it is also an act of aesthetic defiance, in the face of the pencil-swallowing Absurd.
Whatever finessings of stationery engineering remain to be dreamed up for the mechanical pencil, you might wonder whether it is already an archaic instrument, suitable only for those with a dissident mania for the physical. Who needs a mechanical pencil, after all, in an age where writing and drawing increasingly take place in frictionless electronic media, where no substance rubs off on another in the way that graphite flakes off onto paper? (Unless we consider flakes of human skin rubbing off onto laptop keyboards and touchscreens.) In apparent response to such a challenge, the newest model by Rotring, the 800+, attempts to live in both worlds simultaneously: to be both old-fashioned mechanical pencil and newfangled electronic accessory.
The 800+ is a thoroughbred writing appliance in solid, brushed aluminum, with red lettering on one facet of its heavy, hexagonal body. Around the top of the barrel, just below the lead-advance button, is the company’s signature red ring (hence the German “Rotring”), here framed in brass. The pencil’s writing tip, also in brass, is retractable, which makes it agreeably “pocket-safe." (It won’t tear the lining of your blazer’s inside breast pocket, if that is where you keep your mechanical pencils. It is where I keep one mechanical pencil.)
To extend the writing tip, you twist the top of the barrel below the red ring. The metal is knurled here, like the cylindrical grip section of the barrel, to signal that it is a control surface. When the tip is retracted, however, the rubberized black end of the barrel becomes a “stylus,” designed to operate the touchscreen of a tablet or other touch-sensitive device. Thus the semantic atavism, or perhaps nostalgia, of the modern age: Just as a “tablet” was once made of stone or clay, a “stylus” was once just a pointed object used to gouge meaningful trenches in a yielding substance.
The Rotring stylus-pencil represents an ambitious and even witty mashup of functions. And yet, to operate an iPad using the 800+’s fat rubber stylus, which is essentially a prosthetic fingertip, feels more like being a child or a caveman than like living in the future. It mainly helps you to appreciate anew the delightful precision of the pencil’s traditional mode, when you twist the barrel to unsheathe the fine metal writing tip and click the button—once? twice?—to advance the nano-engineered rod of graphite by a millimeter or two. This is a little ritual of sensual mechanics, repeatable dozens of times a day without risk of boredom; an act of prologue and preparation, like a martial artist saluting the judges before his demonstration or a concert pianist adjusting his stool and flicking his coat-tails behind him; a micro-play of reassuringly predictable physics that signals both to the pencil and to its thinking operator that now, yes now, it is time to begin writing again.
|An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things|