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The Pencil

Most events, ideas, inventions and items of note eventually become associated with a “national day.”

While many observances have valid historical significance, some are little more than marketing schemes.

I’d argue that’s not so when it comes to the pencil. Each year, March 30 is designated as National Pencil Day. It commemorates March 30, 1858, when Hymen Lipman registered the first patent for a pencil with an eraser attached to the end opposite the lead.

Entrepreneurism and innovation around the mighty pencil was crowded space, and Lipman’s patent didn’t stand. Less than 20 years after he filed the patent (and sold it to an enterprising businessman for $100,000), the Supreme Court ruled adding an eraser to the tip of a pencil was simply joining one existing technology with another.

The court had a point. According to “The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance” by Henry Petroski, it’s tough but not impossible to chart how a palm-sized lump of lead evolved to stylus to the modern day Dixon-Ticonderoga wood-cased No. 2 pencil.

“As early as the 12th century, the German monk Theophilus wrote of an alloy of lead and tin being used, in conjunction with ruler and compasses, to lay down a design on a wooden board,” writes Petroski.

According to history Cyril Stanley Smith, Theophilus was the first person “in all history to record in words anything approaching circumstantial detail a technique based on his own experience.” This formed the basis for monks to record life beyond scholarly information on behalf of The Church.

In these modern times, it’s easy to assume pencils have given way to the technological advancements. However, such assumptions don’t take into account those who prefer pencils above all other recording devices.

“For years I have looked for the perfect pencil,” writer John Steinbeck once said. “I have found very good ones, but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils, but me. A pencil that is right some days is no good another day.”

According to The Palimpsest, Steinbeck settled on the Mongol 480 No. 2 pencil as his writing utensil of choice. He started each day with 24 freshly sharpened pencils and had a rather famous callus on his right ring finger from hours of daily writing. In completing his novel “East of Eden,” he used more than 300 pencils.

Steinbeck is one of many examples of creative people who wrote in pencil to maximize the spiritual, developmental and critical-thinking benefits of the practice.

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, the complex skill of handwriting can assist in developing and retaining fine motor abilities, visual perceptual and visual motor skills, spatial organization and more.

Writing in pencil can play a role in the contemplative process too.

Writer Ryan Dunn believes writing in longhand helps you slow down and manage your thought process. Most of us who have equal experience typing and writing find the former to be much faster. However, he notes the slower pace of longhand can aid in idea management.

“It’s difficult to fully realize and develop an idea when the words are being typed at a faster rate than the thought even had a chance to breathe,” Dunn explains.

Golden writes The Courier’s weekly faith and values column. Email her at


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