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[i.e. your Knowledge Quotient]
A little Tail
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.
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
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
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