Jul 11, 2011

Review: The Pencil

The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski is just what it says: a history of how the pencil came to be what it is today. When you think of technology, the pencil is hardly the first item that comes to mind. They're cheap, bought by the dozen (or gross), are given away for advertising, are of no consequence if lost, and are hardly thought of. But consider for a minute: how would you make a pencil?

You have to select the proper wood and shape it precisely. You have to make the substance that makes up the "lead" (a mixture of graphite and other materials) so that it writes but doesn't break under light pressure. You have to shape that substance to go in the wood. You have to attach the eraser.

The history of the pencil traces the rise of a whole industry, is affected by material shortages, wars, competition among countries, and many other factors.

For me, it made me think of the great complexity of even a seemingly simple technology. It also made me appreciate the brains God has given us to figure out how to make such a thing in the face of innumerable problems and constraints. It is a bit dry in places, but I still recommend it to give a good perspective on the complexity of technology and how intertwined it is with society.

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