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Thread: I, Pencil

  1. #1

    Default I, Pencil

    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:

    I, Pencil


    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
    so simple.

    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.

    Innumerable Antecedents

    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-
    ural fats.

    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
    can enumerate!

    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
    to explain.

    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
    these items.

    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-
    ernmental “masterminding.”

    Testimony Galore

    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?

  2. #2


    So what do you think?
    I honestly wasn't a huge fan. This isn't an intentional flame, just my honest opinion. If not in an argumentative mood, feel free to skip over this post ;p

    .. anyway.. I found it very long winded, academic, and the logic near the end starts to stretch pretty thin. It took a really damn long time to make a fairly simple point... and the ending seems a little dubious and "pie in the sky"-ish.

    Very thinly related to this, James Burke did a really good series called "Connections" where he presents a view on change that counters the traditional linear view of historical progress. In a nut shell he argues that inventions build upon other inventions, in many cases unpredictably. It's a very good series with high production values and is presented in a very enjoyable manner. Highly recommended if you have any interest in technological history.

    Would also add (although moot for this argument, just saying..) that large industrial processing generates very complex (and admittedly mind-boggling) processes for producing very simple things (pencils, toothpicks, whatever) in large quantities. Those processes get to be so cumbersome because they profit in volume. An individual can still make his/her own pencil. Not the exact one described, not using the exact same methods, nor with all the refinement, nor in the same quantity, but with the basic understanding of what a pencil is and how it works, it could probably be done by a properly motivated individual. More specifically, if all an individual cared about was making that exact pencil, he probably _could_ become an expert in all the components required. Of course replace pencil with computer and you have a valid argument, so it's a moot point....

  3. #3


    I like it... I assume you listen to Mark Levin, because he has been talking about this for the last several weeks and using it to make the point that Obama's speeches about how terrible for America 'Fat-Cat Business men and women who fly private jets' are. When in reality, every American has the dream of becoming one at some point and they are responsible for giving people jobs. And those jobs may make the fatcat richer, but they also pay regular everyday American's a decent wage and without them, America would go down the tube and be a third world nation in no time.

    But i like the story, so i will step off my conservative soap box and just answer the OP. Good story!

  4. #4


    Quote Originally Posted by ABalex View Post
    I like it... I assume you listen to Mark Levin, because he has been talking about this for the last several weeks and using it to make the point that Obama's speeches about how terrible for America 'Fat-Cat Business men and women who fly private jets' are. When in reality, every American has the dream of becoming one at some point and they are responsible for giving people jobs. And those jobs may make the fatcat richer, but they also pay regular everyday American's a decent wage and without them, America would go down the tube and be a third world nation in no time.

    But i like the story, so i will step off my conservative soap box and just answer the OP. Good story!
    Yes... actually I do listen to Mark Levin, and I heard him read it on the air the other day and thought it might be a good discussion starter. I take it you listen to him too? You must, because you pretty much said what he said, and which I agree with. Yes, there are going to be some greedy jerks that take advantage of things, but there will be those no matter the system. I think Capitalism for the most part takes most of advantage of the incredible ingenuity and creativity of people, by allowing each person to work toward his or her own goals and bettering his or her own life, while at the same time benefiting society as a whole. Like the story says, the guy mining the metal that ends up holding the eraser on a pencil isn't doing it because he wants a pencil. He's doing it technically out of greed. He's going to sell the metal to get what he wants to make his and his family's life better, but at the same time the metal he mines is used to make society better and allow others to pursue their own happiness in bigger and better ways.

    BoundCoder said an individual could learn how to do all the parts himself and make a pencil himself. Probably true, but who has the time or energy? Would it be worth it just for a pencil? Not Likely, but because of individuals each only trying to make his own life better, we can have as many pencils as we need, for just a few pennies apiece. Also, as BoundCoder also mentioned. Even if a person could make his own pencil, there's no way he could make his own iPhone or Computer or Business Jet, and on and on.

    I think the biggest point of the whole thing is freedom. To reach their full potential people have to be free to pursue happiness in their own way. A person will achieve much, much more when he is doing something for himself, to make himself happy and reach his own goals then he ever will by being forced or coerced by a "master mind" (i.e. the law, government, police, etc.). The continual hope of bettering himself and his family is what makes him want to work so hard. Take that possibility away, and he really has no reason to continue. This hope is what our founders believed was a God-given right that no man or men could ever take away as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence. It's what I want to ensure never changes about our country.

  5. #5


    Kinda surprised! Haven't noticed a lot of people on here that i would assume to be Mark Levin fans.

    Crazy Liberals...JK

    We need both sides or America would not work.

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