..... Stumper Index
Stumper #42.
H
o
w

g
o
o
d

i
s

y
o
u
r

s
c
i
e
n
c
e

K
Q
?

How Good Is Your Science KQ?
[i.e. your Knowledge Quotient]

A little Tail

image
In ancient times its name identified it as a “little tail” but the name of the subject of our stumper, which is an engineered artifact made from natural materials is not very likely these days to evoke such an image.

The first (1768-1771) edition of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” describes our subject as including animal bristles or hairs but ignores an already existing alternative style which was very similar to the modern counterpart.

Henry David Thoreau made detailed lists of essential supplies when he made his excursions into the Maine woods in search of insects and botanical specimens but although, along with his spyglass, pocket microscope and notebook, he always had one of our stumper items with him he routinely neglected to include it on his lists. What makes this omission perhaps especially surprising is that Thoreau and his father actually manufactured these items in the 1840s.

Although the subject of this stumper is generally considered unremarkable and tends to be ignored because it is so familiar, inexpensive and abundant it can be considered to be essential for much of civilization’s spontaneity and creativity. Every time I use one something new appears.

An early twentieth century manufacturer of this item wrote that he needed to “become familiar with the nature of hundreds of dyestuffs, of shellac and many other resins, of clays of all kinds and from all parts of the world, ...”1

Names like Mongol, Ticonderago, Venus-Velvet, and Faber Blackwing will immediately reveal the item’s identity to some readers, But if you have not already worked it out I need to let you know that encased in cedar wood the working part of this tool is the thin column of solid, black stuff that runs through its center. We are discussing a pencil.

a. Our first question is: what is this substance in a pencil that naturalists, artists, writers, engineers, architects, scientists, and just about everybody young and old, use to express themselves on paper? No, the answer is not lead.

b. The harder question: what do pencil makers do to this substance (revealed in a.) to create pencils of different hardness?


1. Henry Petroski. The Pencil. Knopf, New York, 1999
Answer Button
Next Stumper

[Home]
Send feedback to
Explorit Science Center, P.O. Box 1288, Davis, CA 95617, USA
Phone: (530)756-0191     Fax: (530)756-1227