… the layman cannot tell what it is to be like without seeing it finished …
Continuing through The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski (1989). All illustrations within this post are from Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook (1968; 1925) and are not in Petroski’s text:
… The plumbago from Borrowdale had certainly been absorbed into the universe at large over the three centuries since it had been discovered: being blown in dust from all the sawing and rubbing, being deposited on the furniture of pencil factories and on the hands and clothes of their workers, being carried in fabricated veins of lead in millions upon millions of wood-cased pencils made and exported around the world, being buried in the stubs of pencils no one wanted to hold on to, being laid down in notes in the margins of books like trail markers through forests of thought, being redeposited in thin lines on thoughts and images on countless sheets of paper, being twisted and crushed in the lines of crumpled manuscripts and sketches, being burned with the thoughts and images no one wanted, or no one wanted to remember or to build. So by the mid-1800s what had once been the world’s purest source of plumbago was essentially worked out and had been diffused throughout the world in a three-centuries-long fit of black entropy.
I’m not going to even try to give a synopsis of the history of the discovery and development of subsequent sources for pencil “lead” and wood and eraser material. Rather I skip to Petroski’s descriptions of one of the pencil’s main uses: drawing:
… Drawing materials have their origins in antiquity. The Egyptians used looped string to scribe true circles, and the Romans used compasses made of bronze and rulers of wood and ivory. By the second century permanent drawings were being made by using a reed pen to draw in ink over the lines scratched on animal skin or papyrus.
Pens made from the quills of birds replaced reed pens by the seventh century, and during medieval times paper making was introduced in the West. With the use of paper widespread during the Renaissance, the method of marking on it with silverpoint was developed. In this method the paper was prepared by applying a wash of finely ground pumice suspended in a very dilute solution of glue and flour paste. When a silverpoint was drawn across such paper, a line varying from pale gray to black could be produced by controlling the pressure on the point. Leonardo used such a method for many of his mechanical drawings, which he then went over with a pencil brush or quill pen and ink.
By the sixteenth century making drafting inistruments had become a trade throughout Europe, and by the eighteenth London became renowned for “mathematical” instrument making generally. But insturments were useless without a drawing medium, and according to Hubert Gautier de Nimes, whose 1716 treatise was the first on bridge building, “the graphite stick, with a file to sharpen it, belongs in the military engineer’s kit.” George Washington’s set of drawing instruments [he was a land-surveyer] bears the date 1749, and includes a divider, two compasses with removable legs, a compass leg for holding a pencil lead, a compass leg with a pen, and a ruling pen — essentially the same equipment as in the set that students learned to draw with two centuries later. And Washington’s kit almost certainly contained some extra graphite or pencil leads. In Washington’s day, in a manner not unlike the use of silverpoint, drawings would first be laid out in pencil and, when all lines were complete, inked over with mechanically guided pens to produce a final draft. For his fieldwork, Washington the surveyer had a red-morocco pocket case holding a folded scale, dividers, and three-inch-long pencil.
In engineering drawing, also called mechanical drawing and even in the past instrumental drawing, because of its use of tools like Washington’s, the weight or thickness of a line is significant. Heavy solid lines are used for the visible outlines of objects, dashed or broken lines are used for indicating hidden parts of objects, and light lines are used for lines giving dimensions. … The inking pens in Washington’s mechanical drawing set were adjustable to make different thicknesses of line, and thus they were well suited to giving the proper weight of line in a final drawing. The draftsman needed only to concentrate on guiding his pen properly and on not cutting the paper.
The use of graphite was much more difficult in Washington’s day. In order to achieve different thicknesses and different weights of lines, different sharpnesses of pencil point and different pressures on the pencil had to be used. Thus pencils made by the Conté process were a great improvement; since they came in a variety of grades, marks of different degrees of darkness could be had by changing pencils instead of changing the pressure on a single piece of lead.
… No matter what the designation of a pencil, the individual particles of lead it will leave on a writing surface will all be equally black, but their size and number will vary according to the pencil’s hardness or softness and the nature of the writing surface. Since paper is a mass of layered fibers, the paper actually acts like a file in shearing off and catching in its small recesses some of the pencil lead.
… While using a sandpaper pad to sharpen drawing pencils enabled the engineer to form his lead into just the point he wanted for the work at hand, the method was also very messy and potentially disastrous. A great deal of dust was always produced and it could ruin any drawing over which it might spill or be blown.
[ … ]
… There is hardly an artifact of engineering or technology that can be separated from its physical appearance, and thus it is not surprising that engineers and technologists think and create in terms of pictures. It is for this reason that the naïve view of engineering as “applied science” is simply not valid. It is actually the theories and equations of science that are applied to the object of an engineer’s imagination — once there is a picture of what is to be theorized about or analyzed with equations — and so science is really used as theoretical engineering. Heavenly explanations of our origins may posit: “In the beginning was the word.” But earthly explanations of the origins of our artifacts must start: “In the beginning was the picture.” Science is really thinking “on second thought,” and science is applied “after the artifact,” when the object has been pictured first in the mind of the engineer.
… Vitruvius stressed the importance of drawing for Roman architects and engineers, and he also recognized that it was the ability to picture the as yet unrealized that set the architect-engineer apart from the layman:
In fact, all kinds of men, and not merely architects, can recognize a good piece of work, but between laymen and the latter there is this difference, that the layman cannot tell what it is to be like without seeing it finished, whereas the architect, as soon as he has formed a conception, and before he begins to work, has a definite idea of the beauty, the convenience, and the propriety that will distinguish it.