Look closely at a wooden pencil, and you can see, running the length from eraser to point, a faint line, with a matching line on the opposite side. If you have presbyopia (that’s not a religious condition), you may need a magnifier. If, like me, you have both presbyopia and myopia, you can remove your glasses and focus on the faint lines. Those lines mark the joints of the two halves of the pencil, which is a wooden cylinder holding a long stick of graphite, and although we apply the term “lead” to the gray or colored material with which we make marks on paper, it is not metal but a relative of carbon.
The graphite pencil dates back at least to the 16th century, the term “lead” a holdover from writing with pieces of the metal. Graphite comes from mines, the first high-quality stuff from a mine in Borrowdale, England. Borrowdale graphite by the 17th century was being widely exported, and security measures had to be taken to prevent pilfering from the mine, workers being required to change from regular clothes to work wear when coming to work and the reverse upon leaving.
When France could obtain no pure Borrowdale graphite in the 1790s due to war with England, French Minister of War Lazare Carnot commissioned Nicolas-Jacques Conté, a 39-year-old engineer and inventor, to develop an alternative to pure graphite. Conté, it is said, did so in a matter of days, and in 1795 he was granted a patent for mixing finely powdered graphite with potter’s clay and water, placing the paste in long, rectangular molds, packing the sticks after drying into charcoal and firing. Pencil leads to this day are still made of graphite and clay.
The process of making pencils of good quality, with strong lead that does not break during sharpening or writing, that is properly centered in the wooden case, and that creates a smooth line, is much more complicated than one would think, as described in Henry Petroski’s “The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance.” The book is a study in engineering practices as much as the history of the pencil, which Petroski uses as an example and analogy for the processes of creating and developing what he terms artifacts.
I was drawn to the book because I have always loved pens and pencils both for their utility as they transfer my thoughts and ideas to paper and for their look, feel, smell and history. I used mechanical pencils for many years, but a few years ago I began to again appreciate the good old wooden pencil, and that led me to Petroski. So when I began composing a new piece of music recently I used a pencil from the Blackfeet Indian Writing Company, which was formed in 1971 as an answer to tribal unemployment in Montana.
Musical composition for me involves the interplay of pencil and plectrum. In this case I modified an exercise I had written 14 years ago when studying 18th-century Scottish composition techniques, transforming a series of drab arpeggios based on a chord progression into a more interesting melody. From that I wrote a variation sonata, refashioning the short two-part tune through changes in notes and rhythms into a piece whose melody part alone spans three pages, patterning the variations after those written by Scots composers in the 1730s and ’40s.
I spent two weeks of weekday evenings writing the tune and variations. I wrote each variation on paper with my pencil, played it on mandola with a plectrum, made changes with pencil and eraser, and played it again. After finishing the piece I wrote it in ink, but even then I made some changes and wished I had written it once more in pencil, and when practicing it this week I made two more minor changes, so my ink copy bears some scribbles and Liquid Paper. But I plan to make an even better copy, in calligraphic lettering. When it is finished it will look long, complex and elaborate, but it began in a less permanent, less polished, state, from a plastic plectrum and a stick of carbon and wood.
Also see http://woolgatheringandwiddershins.