The Original Low-Tech Tool
- Friday, March 07, 2014
We indeed live in an amazing time with incredible technology that can do so much for us. The computer is no longer a large, clunky, box-like machine on the desk but is sleek and small and flat. Computer technology is found in our cell phones, tablets, part of our entertainment systems, and the vehicles we drive.
A recent trip became a stark reminder of how far we have come in our daily use of technology: the airline ticket was purchased by computer. I used the airport’s computer check-in system for my luggage. A very large x-ray computer was used to scan my carry-ons (and me) at the security clearance checkpoint. The rental car was equipped with a navigation system, a dashboard computer, to get me to my destination. The hotel room key was not a traditional brass key of old but a magnetized plastic card read by a mini-computer in my room door. And a very sophisticated personal coffee machine was there in the room to make sure coffee was brewed by the time I woke up the next morning!
I admit there are times when I take all of that technology for granted. The convenience and ease with which it allows me to go about my business means I often forget about what it takes to work. But the flip side is that when something goes wrong with computerized systems, especially in larger items like a car, or in appliances like a clothes washer, that can be expensive to repair and incredibly frustrating. Those are the days when I long for the simple and low-tech life. And, as an artist, the most low-tech thing I can think of is actually one of my favorite tools: the pencil.
The pencil we are so familiar with today—a yellow wooden #2—has its origins in ancient Rome and Egypt, where the first stylus was used. The stylus was a thin metal rod that was used to leave a light mark on papyrus, an early type of paper. But the dark grey smudgy material that looks like lead, and that we know as pencil lead, is not lead at all but is a carbon-based mineral called graphite. The first known discovery of a graphite deposit from the earth was made before 1550 in Cumbria, England. The local people had discovered that this substance was useful for marking their sheep and that this particular deposit of graphite was large and dense so that chunks could be sawn off into long sticks. This made them the perfect shape for use during writing or drawing but pretty messy on the hands. So early graphite sticks would be wrapped in string to keep them from breaking and to protect the hands of the user.
Most of the known graphite deposits in the world were in England until other deposits were discovered in the late 1600s in Germany, so the square sticks of graphite made in England were the only pencils available for centuries. The graphite from England (and therefore the pencils) were of a higher quality, but the Germans found a process to make pencils more efficiently by combining graphite with clay, which made their pencils less expensive.
It was not until some Italian carpenters decided to encase a stick of graphite with a hollowed out wooden stick that we had the beginnings of our modern pencil. Plain Eastern Red Cedar was the wood of choice, since it did not splinter when sharpened, and in the early years the wood was left in its natural state. Now most pencils worldwide are encased in Incense Cedar, which is grown in special groves in California in an environmentally responsible way. Over time, each pencil manufacturer painted the wood casings of its pencils and imprinted its name on each one.
In the early history of the United States, most pencils were imported from Europe, but when the import tariff became too high in the late 1700s, several pencil companies sprang up in the Mid-Atlantic states to meet the high demand. In fact, by the Civil War era, pencils had become standard items that were issued to all soldiers. Two billion pencils are manufactured each year in the United States alone.
There is some confusion as to why most pencils sold in the United States are yellow. One story is that the color yellow was associated with royalty in China, and since in the 1800s graphite discovered in China was found to be of a high quality, pencil manufacturers wanted to convince customers that their pencils were regal! Another story is that a Hungarian pencil company started making yellow pencils named after the famous (and very expensive) yellow diamond known as the Koh-I-Noor diamond, at the suggestion of Queen Victoria. The Koh-I Noor pencil company has been making high-quality pencils ever since!
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