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Happy Birthday to the Modern Pencil

Was sticking an eraser on the back of a pencil common sense, or a new invention? This week in 1868, Philadelphia stationery store owner H.L. Lipman patented something that seems incredibly obvious in hindsight: a regular pencil, with an eraser on the end.

Although Lipman is credited with this innovation, his pencil with eraser looked a little different than its modern descendant. Rather than being glued onto the end, Lipman envisioned a pencil with a chunk of rubber eraser in the core that could be accessed by sharpening it, the same way you would a pencil lead.

Graphite pencils had been around since the 1500s, writes David Green for Haaretz. But until the 1770s, the preferred tool used to erase pencil marks was balled-up bread.

Lipman’s name hasn’t gone down in history, maybe because he didn’t manage to hold on to his patent. After gaining it, he sold it to Joseph Reckendorfer in 1862 for about $2 million in today’s money. Reckendorfer also didn’t get much use out of the patent. He took another company to court over their use of his patent, only for it to be invalidated by the court’s decision, which stated that Lipman merely combined two existing things, but didn’t really produce something new.

Lipman essentially imagined the pencil as having a graphite end and a rubber eraser end.

“It may be more convenient to turn over the different ends of the same stick than to lay down one stick and take up another,” the decision noted. “This, however, is not invention within the patent law.”

Over his career, though, Lipman also made a number of contributions to the 19th-century office:

He was also America’s first envelope manufacturer, and it was he who had the idea of adding adhesive to the back flap, so as to make sealing easier. He devised a methods for binding papers with an eyelet that preceded the stapler by two decades. And Lipman was the first to produce and sell blank postcards in the United States, in 1873.

Pencils aren’t really a notable object, writes Henry Petroski in The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, but they shape how people do their work. Unlike the pen, a more permanent writing instrument, the pencil doesn’t usually get sayings (it’s the pen that’s mightier than the sword, for example) or a lot of credit. But pencil is an essential creative medium, he writes, because it can be erased—as everyone from architects to artists can tell you.

“Ink is the cosmetic that ideas will wear when they go out in public,” he writes. “Graphite is their dirty truth.”

credits: kat eschner, smithsonian.com, smithsonian magazine

75 responses »

  1. I’m definitely a pencil guy …

    “Sharpen Those Pencils”

    I like to write with a HB lead pencil
    I enjoy the earthy feel of wood in my fingers
    And the soft touch of carbon upon paper

    During sharpening time, my mind ponders
    About the origins of those timber shavings
    And the history behind the carbon slithers
    These tiny trival objects all evoke thoughts
    Then the thoughts instigate words in my mind
    And simply like that, my writing process begins

    I never retire without my note-pad nearby
    And a lead pencil as my trusty writing scribe
    Sometimes heavy, other times light
    A necessary sword to fight off a dark night

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fascinating information about an object we take easily for granted! I use a pencil so much – and its eraser apparently more – that I have to add one of those independent coned erasers to the ones I use until they are such small nubs that I can no longer hold them comfortably. Thank you for an interesting article!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing the history, Beth. Pencils shaped my life~personally and professionally. I always feared I didn’t have a number 2! And then relayed that to students. I never saw a number 1, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Beth, for sharing such a great post filled with interesting background facts about the poor old pencil; oft times used with out thought, oft times misused and abused. I even remember the days of slate pencils. Now that’s another tale altogether.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. One of the best investments I made every year in my classroom was an expensive electric pencil sharpener. So worth it besides not having kids standing in life trying to coax the handheld models to work.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What an interesting post. I am so selective about erasers – those red type just make a smeary mess. I do love pencils being an artist, but I usually sharpen with a razor blade to save on waste.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: erased. – Nelsapy

  8. I read this when it showed up on my phone. But I can’t access the comments on it (or it takes ages for me to tap in a reply) and so I’m the usual latecomer. I LOVE pencils, I live with a bunch of pencils at all and every moment. But contrary to everyone I love them soft, the softer, the better. In France I was able to buy 3B and even 4B – love them for Sudoku, all mind games, but also for notes, even cards, shopping lists, thoughts crossing my mind and I’d never leave the house w/o at least 2 pencils and a sharpener. I have my faves there too, as I have special gums that do not smudge. I’m not too hot for the attached rather too hard rubbers at the end. I used to draw a lot, really a lot – and the rubber was an essential part of my creations.
    Lipman was a man after my own heart. He created (w/o my knowledge so far) many an article I appreciate greatly as I’m also one who still writes and mails hand written notes, I wrote over 100 notes of thanks on our official ‘thank you’ cards after the death of my mum 8 weeks ago, I create stuff with the help of pencils, eraser gums, envelopes, cards, postcards – the list goes on and on.
    Thanks for a very interesting post. Hope to be back more often…

    Liked by 1 person

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