Even Pencils will be hard to make

Most of us are unaware of how complex our society is, how things are made, how food is grown, how stuff is delivered, and the people, energy, transportation, and kinds and sources of materials in every day objects.  This essay, written over 50 years ago, gives you an idea of how complex the antecedents of simple objects in your life are, how difficult many will be to make locally.   I’ve shrunk and paraphrased much of the essay.

After this, I recommend reading my post on the Toaster Project, and then how microchips are made.

Alice Friedemann

Read, Leonard E. 1958. I, Pencil My Family Tree.

“…not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”

This sounds fantastic, especially when there are about 1.5 billion of my kind made in the U.S.A. every year.  Pick me up and what do you see? Not much — some wood, lacquer, printed labeling, graphite lead, a bit of metal, and an eraser.

My family tree begins with … a cedar tree from Northern California or Oregon. Now contemplate the antecedents — all the people, numberless skills, and fabrication:

  • all the saws and trucks and rope and countless other gear to harvest and cart cedar logs to the railroad siding
  • the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors
  • the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope
  • the logging camps with their beds and mess halls
  • the cookery and the raising of all the foods to feed the men
  • the untold thousands of persons who had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drank!

The logs are shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California. Can you imagine how many people were needed to make flat cars and rails and railroad engines, to construct and install the communication systems required? These are just a few of the antecedents.

Consider the mill work in San Leandro. The cedar logs are cut into small, pencil-length slats less than a quarter inch thick. These are kiln dried and then tinted.  The slats are waxed and kiln dried again. How many skills went into the making of the tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires? Plus the sweepers and the men who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company hydroplant which supplies the mill’s power!

Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the nation.

Once in the pencil factory—worth millions of dollars in machinery and building—each slat is given eight grooves by a complex machine, after which another machine lays leads in every other slat, applies glue, and places another slat on top—a lead sandwich, so to speak. Seven brothers and I are mechanically carved from this “wood-clinched” sandwich.

My “lead” itself—it contains no lead at all—is complex. The graphite is mined in Ceylon. Consider these miners and those who make their many tools and the makers of the paper sacks in which the graphite is shipped and those who make the string that ties the sacks and those who put them aboard ships and those who make the ships. Even the lighthouse keepers along the way assisted in my birth—and the harbor pilots.

The graphite is mixed with clay from Mississippi in which ammonium hydroxide is used in the refining process. Then wetting agents are added such as sulfonated tallow—animal fats chemically reacted with sulfuric acid. After passing through numerous machines, the mixture finally appears as endless extrusions—as from a sausage grinder-cut to size, dried, and baked for several hours at 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit. To increase their strength and smoothness the leads are then treated with a hot mixture which includes candelilla wax from Mexico, paraffin wax, and hydrogenated natural fats.

My cedar receives six coats of lacquer. Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the growers of castor beans and the refiners of castor oil are a part of it? They are. Why, even the processes by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involve the skills of more persons than one can enumerate!

Observe the labeling. That’s a film formed by applying heat to carbon black mixed with resins. How do you make resins and what is carbon black?

My bit of metal—the ferrule—is brass. Think of all the persons who mine zinc and copper and those who have the skills to make shiny sheet brass from these products of nature. Those black rings on my ferrule are black nickel. What is black nickel and how is it applied? The complete story of why the center of my ferrule has no black nickel on it would take pages to explain.

Then there’s my crowning glory, inelegantly referred to in the trade as “the plug,” the part man uses to erase the errors he makes with me. An ingredient called “factice” is what does the erasing. It is a rubber-like product made by reacting rape-seed oil from the Dutch East Indies with sulfur chloride. Rubber, contrary to the common notion, is only for binding purposes. Then, too, there are numerous vulcanizing and accelerating agents. The pumice comes from Italy; and the pigment which gives “the plug” its color is cadmium sulfide.

Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. Now, you may say that I go too far in relating the picker of a coffee berry in far off Brazil and food growers elsewhere to my creation; that this is an extreme position. I shall stand by my claim. There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field—paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on.

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