If I remember correctly my parents gave me my first one when I was a freshman in high school. Back then, of course, i was considered a geek. The term nerd wasn’t in use yet. Like the good geek that I was I put it in my shiny new pocket protector next to my fountain pen which confirmed my place on the geek squad with the other guys who considered themselves in the cool clique. You might remember that in past articles I mentioned I attended McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, New York which was an all-male Catholic high school taught predominantly by Jesuit priests and brothers.
My new possession was, of course, a mechanical lead pencil. My parents both worked at Eastman Kodak Company, yes the camera and film company, and my mother gave me one of her mechanical pencils with “Eastman Kodak Company” emblazoned on it. We had to buy extra lead at the store so that I would have enough on hand. Why do I bring up this subject now? The reason is simple. I was rummaging through a box of “miscellaneous stuff” in my home office when I came across one of those Eastman Kodak Company mechanical pencils that still have and I used at work when plotting the paths of hurricanes on a paper hurricane chart. I still do that now, even though I am no longer on TV just for my own information and records. That accidental find got me thinking about who came up with the idea and just how long ago were mechanical pencils invented.
I really had no idea how long ago they were invented. I thought they were relatively new item. Boy was I wrong! According to HistoryofPencils.com ” A Mechanical pencil is a pencil that has a mechanism that extends a solid pigment core called a lead which is made of graphite or a solid pigment. This pigment core is not bonded to the outer casing and is replaceable. While called a “mechanical pencil’ in the United States it is called a ‘propelling pencil’ in the UK and a ‘pen pencil in India.”
They list Conrad Gesner, a Swiss naturalist and bibliographer, as the first person to invent the mechanical pencil, or lead holder pencil, in 1565. In order to be sharpened his pencil had to be manually adjusted in order to be sharpened. One of his mechanical pencils was found in 1977 when the 1791 wreck of the HMS Pandora was found.
Samson Mordan and John Isaac Hawkins seem to be the first to invent a mechanical pencil that actually propelled the lead through the pencil back in 1822 and that is when they applied for the first patent for a mechanical pencil.
The lead could also be replaced when needed. By 1837 Mordan’s company, S. Mordan and Company, started manufacturing only mechanical pencils. WWII saw his factory destroyed by a bombing raid.
Talk about “building a better mousetrap” there were more than 160 patents for mechanical pencils registered between 1822 an 1874. The twist-feed mechanism was developed in 1895. A metal worker named Tokugi Hayakawa made improvements on the mechanical pencil in 1915, specifically a screw mechanism, and called it the “Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil.” He subsequently named his company “Sharp” after the pencil.
Also in 1915 an American named Charles R. Kerran made a mechanical pencil like Tokugi’s but with a ratchet-based mechanism to push the lead out. He called his invention the “Eversharp” pencil which has been mistakenly confused with the Japanese mechanical pencil company. Referring back to HistoryofPencils.com ” Very thin leads appeared in 1939, and the first one had a diameter of 0.9 mm. Next were 0.3, 0.5, 0.7, 1.3, and 1.4 mm. Today we have 0.4 mm leads and even 0.2 mm.
They go on to explain that there are three principles at work here. “Ratchet-based pencils have two or three small jaws inside a ring at the tip which hold the lead. When the button on the end of the pencil is pressed, jaws move forward and open pushing the lead forward.” Once moved the lead is held in place by a rubber device. “Screw-based pencils have a screw which when twisted moves a slider down the barrel of the pencil which, in turn, advances the lead.” Clutch pencils (also known as leadholder) are a variant of ratchet-based pencils because they also have two or three small jaws and these, when the button on the other end is pressed, also open, but but they don’t have a mechanism that will hold the lead. Clutch pencils hold larger lead (from 2.0 to 5.6 mm) and usually hold only one piece of lead at a time while while other types of mechanical pencils with thinner leads can hold more in reserve.”
Now that you know so much about mechanical pencils, you might just want to try one out for yourself. That is if you can pry yourself away from your electronic gadgets long enough to actually write on a piece of paper.
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