Pen and pencil: for texting the old-fashioned way

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

pencil-clipart_640-480About 500 years ago or thereabouts a graphite deposit was discovered in England and sliced into the first pencils some time after that. Initially it was used in a holder.

Despite of the fact that the inner core of a pencil is called a lead there is no lead in it and lead was never used. The metallurgists who discovered this pure graphite in Britain thought that is was some kind of black lead and thus it was called plumbago.

In the 16th century, a large deposit of pure, solid graphite was discovered in Borrowdale, England. This was the first time in recorded history that high quality, solid graphite had been found. When metallurgists first encountered this substance, they thought it was some sort of black lead, rather than a form of carbon. Thus, they called it “plumbago”, which is derived from “plumbum”, which is Latin for “lead”.

It didn’t take people long to realize that solid sticks of high quality graphite were good for marking things. At that point, this newly discovered substance from the mines of Borrowdale became extremely valuable. So much so that guards were eventually posted at the entrance to the mine and laws were passed to stop people from stealing the solid graphite. In addition, once a sufficient stock of the graphite was mined, the mine itself would be flooded until more graphite was needed.

Of course, sticks of pure graphite are fairly brittle, so people started embedding them in various things such as hollowed out pieces of wood and also simply wrapped tightly in sheep skin. Thus, the pencil was officially born with a core of solid graphite, which was known then as black lead. The tradition of calling sticks of graphite “lead” has endured to this day, and in many countries the pencil is actually, in the vernacular, called, basically, a lead pen, such as the German “Bleistift”, which means precisely that.

But who uses a pencil anymore?

Pencils are like fax machines and margarine: They do a job, sure, but other things do the same job better – pens, email and butter, respectively. You can write a letter in pencil, but it's more adult to write in pen. You can solve a crossword in pencil, but it's more courageous in pen.

As far as I am concerned there are some things that a pen cannot do compared to a pencil, or at least not at the low cost.

When the US went into Space they spent millions upon millions to have a pen developed that could work in zero gravity, etc., which is now the Fisher Space Pen, while the Soviet Union (USSR) spent nothing, zilch, nada. They used what was already there and could do the same job, and yes, it was and is the humble pencil.

To be honest, we were issued – let me rephrase that... they tried to issue us – with the first generation of Fisher Space Pens (Bullet Pens) but they were so useless that we refused. The ink was so shall we call it think, or whatever was wrong with it, that it just could not follow fast enough as far as our writing was concerned. It just was not flowing well enough. Today the pen is somewhat better but I will just stick with an ordinary ballpoint or a pencil; thank you. Or, and now you can call me a real old-fashioned guy, a fountain pen, and ideally one that gets filled from a pot of ink.

But back to the pencil for a moment and the question as to who uses a pencil anymore? When I am working with wood, be it carving spoons, etc. I will mark the bowl shape (nothing else though) in pencil. On green, wet, wood a pencil mark works better than does a ballpoint pen and when I mark dry wood for cutting and such I always use a pencil, at time a flat carpenter's pencil. Also, the marks of a pencil can be removed from the wood (or whatever else) while that of a pen may be not.

Also, a pencil works when the paper is slightly wet (where often a ballpoint pen and especially a fountain pen will not), it will work on walls, upside down and in low gravity or even zero gravity environments, and in low temperatures where, again, ballpoint and fountain pen often will not do so. Thus there is still a place for it for sure.

I could not think about working without pen and/or pencil as I am still very much a pen and paper merchant. I also still write letters, though most of them, nowadays on the PC's word processing program and then printed out. The envelope, however, more often than not is addressed by use of pen though at times the typewriter – yes, one of those antiques, and mine is one, in fact – is used for that.

How could I possibly write in my diary – oh, yes, one of those books with paper pages in it – or my notebook, if it were not for the humble pencil or the ballpoint pen? The only drawback – though at times it is an advantage – of the pencil is that it is not really and truly permanent. Anything written can be erased by use of an eraser. But that is also one of the advantages of the pencil. Horses for courses, as they say.

© 2017