Now is a good time to revisit the 1958 essay in which Leonard Read examined how a pencil is made — and how it is miraculous that a pencil is made at all.
The standard pencil begins when a cedar is cut down. Ropes and gear tug it onto the bed of a truck or a rail car.
Think of all the numberless people and skills involved in mining ore to produce steel and refine the steel into saws, axes and motors, wrote Read.
Think of all the people who grow hemp, then transform it, through various stages, into a strong rope.
Think of the untold thousands of people who produce the coffee the loggers drink!
The logs are shipped to a mill and cut into slats. The slats are kiln-dried, tinted, waxed, then kiln-dried again.
How many skills were needed to produce the tint and the kilns, Read wondered. What about the electric power? What about the belts, motors and other parts at the mill?
The pencil slats are shipped to a factory. A complex machine cuts grooves into each. A second machine lays lead into every other slat. Glue is applied. Two slats are sealed together as one, then cut into lengths that form pencils.
The lead alone is complex, he explains. It’s not really lead. To produce it, graphite is mined in Ceylon. The graphite is packed and shipped, then mixed with clay from Mississippi. It is treated with wetting agents — such as sulfonated tallow, which is formed when animal fats chemically react with sulfuric acid.
The pencil receives six coats of lacquer. Lacquer has numerous ingredients, including castor oil. Think of all the chemists needed to create the paint — think of all the castor bean growers needed to produce, refine and ship the oil.
The brass end that holds the eraser in place is a marvel. Miners need to first extract zinc and copper from the earth. Experts transform those materials into sheet brass, which is then cut, stamped and affixed to the pencil.