Duck Duck Book

12 – the pencil
02.14.2005, 12:03 am
Filed under: technology

The pencil : a history of design and circumstance / by Henry Petroski.
New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2003, c1989.
[MCL call number: 674.88 P497p 2003; two copies, one hold]

The Pencil is a startlingly captivating examination of the history of one of the most taken-for-granted basic tools of literate cultures. In clear prose, Petroski discusses writing instruments that were used (in Europe) before the invention of the modern pencil, examines the changes in technology and the availability of raw materials that were the engine behind making pencils widely and cheaply available through much of the world, and discusses pencil manufacturers, pencil users, and more. He also includes an entire chapter about pencil sharpening and pencil sharpeners.

The Pencil is appended with a historical piece from the Koh-I-Noor company about how pencils are made, and a brief essay on collecting pencils. There is a bibliography and an excellent index, and I can heartily recommend the entire 434 worthy pages. Did you know, for example, that in the 1930s there was a pencil manufacturing plant in Moscow called the Sacco and Venzetti Pencil Factory, or that Henry David Thoreau’s family were pencil manufacturers, and he himself one of their most able engineers?

Petroski has written many other books that look interesting (though I’ve not read them), including one about book shelving (The Book on the Bookshelf, reviewed by Jessamyn West), and several others about inventions, engineering, and design.


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