This was first published in 1958... It's kinda long, but I thought it was pretty cool. It illustrates how little we can do individually, but how we can do miracles when we work together... even when we don't even realize we ARE working together. Enjoy! (There's also an article on Wikipedia about it, and a PDF available of it with the Intro and Afterward written by someone else that I left off of this post.)
Here's the link to the PDF of it:
BY LEONARD E. READ
I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to
all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.
Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do.
You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to
begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery
—more so than a tree or a sunset or even a flash of lightning.
But, sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I
were a mere incident and without background. This supercil-
ious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace.
This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind
cannot too long persist without peril. For, the wise G. K.
Chesterton observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not
for want of wonders.”
I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your
wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you
can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if
you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbol-
ize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily
losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this
lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a
mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly
Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth
knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?
Especially when it is realized that there are about one and one-
half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A. each year.
Pick me up and look me over. What do you see? Not much
meets the eye—there’s some wood, lacquer, the printed label-
ing, graphite lead, a bit of metal, and an eraser.
Just as you cannot trace your family tree back very far, so
is it impossible for me to name and explain all my antecedents.
But I would like to suggest enough of them to impress upon
you the richness and complexity of my background.
My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar
of straight grain that grows in Northern California and
Oregon. Now contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope
and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting
the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all the persons
and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the
mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws,
axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all
the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with
their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the
foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every
cup of coffee the loggers drink!
The logs are shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California.
Can you imagine the individuals who make flat cars and rails
and railroad engines and who construct and install the com-
munication systems incidental thereto? These legions are
among my antecedents.
Consider the millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are
cut into small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an
inch in thickness. These are kiln dried and then tinted for the
same reason women put rouge on their faces. People prefer
that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The slats are waxed and
kiln dried again. How many skills went into the making of the
tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power,
the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires?
Sweepers in the mill among my ancestors? Yes, and included
are the men who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacific
Gas & Electric Company hydroplant which supplies the mill’s
Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have
a hand in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the
Once in the pencil factory—$4,000,000 in machinery and
building, all capital accumulated by thrifty and saving parents
of mine—each slat is given eight grooves by a complex
machine, after which another machine lays leads in every
other slat, applies glue, and places another slat atop—a lead
sandwich, so to speak. Seven brothers and I are mechanically
carved from this “wood-clinched” sandwich.
My “lead” itself—it contains no lead at all—is complex.
The graphite is mined in Ceylon [Sri Lanka]. Consider these
miners and those who make their many tools and the makers
of the paper sacks in which the graphite is shipped and those
who make the string that ties the sacks and those who put
them aboard ships and those who make the ships. Even the
lighthouse keepers along the way assisted in my birth—and
the harbor pilots.
The graphite is mixed with clay from Mississippi in which
ammonium hydroxide is used in the refining process. Then
wetting agents are added such as sulfonated tallow—animal
fats chemically reacted with sulfuric acid. After passing
through numerous machines, the mixture finally appears as
endless extrusions—as from a sausage grinder—cut to size,
dried, and baked for several hours at 1,850 degrees
Fahrenheit. To increase their strength and smoothness the
leads are then treated with a hot mixture which includes can-
delilla wax from Mexico, paraffin wax, and hydrogenated nat-
My cedar receives six coats of lacquer. Do you know all the
ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the growers of
castor beans and the refiners of castor oil are a part of it? They
are. Why, even the processes by which the lacquer is made a
beautiful yellow involve the skills of more persons than one
Observe the labeling. That’s a film formed by applying
heat to carbon black mixed with resins. How do you make
resins and what, pray, is carbon black?
My bit of metal—the ferrule—is brass. Think of all the
persons who mine zinc and copper and those who have the
skills to make shiny sheet brass from these products of nature.
Those black rings on my ferrule are black nickel. What is black
nickel and how is it applied? The complete story of why the
center of my ferrule has no black nickel on it would take pages
Then there’s my crowning glory, inelegantly referred to in
the trade as “the plug,” the part man uses to erase the errors
he makes with me. An ingredient called “factice” is what does
the erasing. It is a rubber-like product made by reacting rape-
seed oil from the Dutch East Indies [Indonesia] with sulfur
chloride. Rubber, contrary to the common notion, is only for
binding purposes. Then, too, there are numerous vulcanizing
and accelerating agents. The pumice comes from Italy; and the
pigment which gives “the plug” its color is cadmium sulfide.
No One Knows
Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that
no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make
Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my
creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of
the others. Now, you may say that I go too far in relating the
picker of a coffee berry in far-off Brazil and food growers else-
where to my creation; that this is an extreme position. I shall
stand by my claim. There isn’t a single person in all these mil-
lions, including the president of the pencil company, who con-
tributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From
the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the
miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the
type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be
dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory
or the worker in the oil field—paraffin being a by-product of
Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil
field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any
who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one
who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of
metal nor the president of the company performs his singular
task because he wants me. Each one wants me less, perhaps,
than does a child in the first grade. Indeed, there are some
among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would
they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me.
Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees
that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods
and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among
No Master Mind
There is a fact still more astounding: The absence of a
master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these
countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such
a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Hand at
work. This is the mystery to which I earlier referred.
It has been said that “only God can make a tree.” Why do
we agree with this? Isn’t it because we realize that we
ourselves could not make one? Indeed, can we even describe a
tree? We cannot, except in superficial terms. We can say, for
instance, that a certain molecular configuration manifests
itself as a tree. But what mind is there among men that could
even record, let alone direct, the constant changes in molecules
that transpire in the life span of a tree? Such a feat is utterly
I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree,
zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which
manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary
miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human
energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally
and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire
and in the absence of any human masterminding! Since only
God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man
can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into
being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.
The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can
become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you
can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.”
For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes,
automatically, arrange themselves into creative and produc-
tive patterns in response to human necessity and demand—
that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive
master-minding—then one will possess an absolutely essential
ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is
impossible without this faith.
Once government has had a monopoly of a creative
activity such, for instance, as the delivery of the mails, most
individuals will believe that the mails could not be efficiently
delivered by men acting freely. And here is the reason: Each
one acknowledges that he himself doesn’t know how to do all
the things incident to mail delivery. He also recognizes that no
other individual could do it. These assumptions are correct. No
individual possesses enough know-how to perform a nation’s
mail delivery any more than any individual possesses enough
know-how to make a pencil. Now, in the absence of faith in free
people—in the unawareness that millions of tiny know-hows
would naturally and miraculously form and cooperate to satis-
fy this necessity—the individual cannot help but reach the
erroneous conclusion that mail can be delivered only by gov-
If I, Pencil, were the only item that could offer testimony
on what men and women can accomplish when free to try, then
those with little faith would have a fair case. However, there is
testimony galore; it’s all about us and on every hand. Mail
delivery is exceedingly simple when compared, for instance, to
the making of an automobile or a calculating machine or a
grain combine or a milling machine or to tens of thousands of
other things. Delivery? Why, in this area where men have been
left free to try, they deliver the human voice around the world
in less than one second; they deliver an event visually and in
motion to any person’s home when it is happening; they deliv-
er 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less than four
hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one’s range or furnace in
New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy; they
deliver each four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our
Eastern Seaboard—halfway around the world—for less money
than the government charges for delivering a one-ounce letter
across the street!
The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative
energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmo-
ny with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all
obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows
freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will
respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I,
Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my
creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical
as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.
---------- Post added at 19:48 ---------- Previous post was at 19:47 ----------
This is just meant to be a discussion starter. So what do you think?