Kuiper said that he needed a “Great American Pencil” to write his Great American Novel, so I tracked down this one for him in Centralia, Washington. Swipe to view it in its entirety. Here are a few pencil facts for today:
John Steinbeck was REALLY into pencils, and very particular about their length and sharpness. Before sitting down to write, he would sharpen 24 pencils, stick them points up in a box, and then use them one by one and stick them point down into another box.
Henry David Thoreau’s family owned a pencil manufacturing business. Before heading off to Walden, Henry performed a bunch of experiments to engineer a better pencil. Among other improvements, he built a device to ensure the graphite was ground more evenly, and mixed the graphite with clay to get a much more consistent product. The family business really took off after that, and his pencils even won multiple awards.
The first patent for a pencil with a built-in eraser was granted on March 30, 1858 to H. Lipman of Philadelphia, PA. He managed to sell it for $100,000 (nearly 3 million in today’s money!) Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court invalidated the patent in 1875 (Reckendorfer v. Faber.) They ruled that since pencils were already a thing, and erasers were already a thing, that sticking a pencil and an eraser together did not constitute a new, patentable idea.
The oft-repeated story about NASA spending millions of dollars to develop a pen that could write in space (while the Soviets used pencils) is not true. Regardless of nationality, (flammable!) pencil shavings and graphite dust floating around in spacecraft are just not a good idea. The Fisher Space Pen was independently developed and funded by American inventor Paul C. Fisher, who succeeded in marketing the heck out of them. They’ve been used on both Russian and American space missions since Apollo. The pens are still available for sale today with prices ranging from $5 – $700 ?
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