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I, Pencil
The Freeman ^ | December 1958 | Leonard E. Reed

Posted on 10/01/2002 11:35:11 AM PDT by Maceman

Pencil Picture

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 supercilious 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 symbolize, 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 labeling, 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 communication 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 power!

Don't overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the nation.

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. 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 candelilla wax from Mexico, paraffin wax, and hydrogenated natural 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 involves 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 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 me?

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 elsewhere to my creation; that this is an extreme position. I shall stand by my claim. There isn't a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes 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 petroleum.

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 enchange his tiny knowhow 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 unthinkable!

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 master-minding! 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, yea, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive 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 satisfy this necessity -- the individual cannot help but reach the erroneous conclusion that mail can be delivered only by governmental "master- minding."

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 deliver 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 harmony 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.

Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) founded FEE in 1946 and served as its president until his death. "I, Pencil," his most famous essay, was first published in the December 1958 issue of The Freeman.

TOPICS: Business/Economy; Constitution/Conservatism; Miscellaneous; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: capitalism; freemarket
One of the best and most accessible articles ever written about the miraculous nature of capitalism. Send it to all your market-phobic liberal friends, family and colleagues.
1 posted on 10/01/2002 11:35:11 AM PDT by Maceman
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To: Maceman
Engineers ought to read Henry Petroski's book, "The Pencil." A lot of engineering is involved. And tons of trivia: You'll learn, for example, why the #2 pencil is (almost) always yellow. A fascinating book.

2 posted on 10/01/2002 11:39:48 AM PDT by Eala
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To: Maceman
I just hafta say "Already Posted"

But since it is one of my favorites it is worth a repeat and a


3 posted on 10/01/2002 11:48:07 AM PDT by DeSoto
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To: DeSoto
Already Posted

Oops, I guess I was supposed to give this a second bump after goofing up the HTML

4 posted on 10/01/2002 11:50:13 AM PDT by DeSoto
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To: Eala
But if the #2 pencil is so popular, how come it's still #2?

Riddle me this, Batman!

5 posted on 10/01/2002 11:52:29 AM PDT by asformeandformyhouse
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To: Maceman; Willie Green; FITZ; Cicero; madeinchina; William McKinley; brat; MissAmericanPie; r9etb; ..
Ya think there are even some Freepers who might benefit from learning how the real world works, Maceman?

No doubt in my mind.

6 posted on 10/01/2002 11:57:39 AM PDT by logician2u
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To: logician2u
One of my favorites. I use in teaching basic economics to Cadet Candidates at Air Force Academy Prep School!
7 posted on 10/01/2002 12:18:19 PM PDT by LiteKeeper
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To: Maceman
I am a rectal thermometer .

" Dag Nab it ! ", the doctor shouted. " Some A**hole is walking around with my pencil ! "

8 posted on 10/01/2002 12:29:15 PM PDT by genefromjersey
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To: logician2u
No doubt in my mind.

A statement that does, after all, presuppose the existence of a mind broad enough to contain something as slim as a doubt....

In fact, I understood this article the first time I read it, some 25 years ago.

I'm sure you realize that my arguments are never about the workings or merit of free market economics. My argument is instead with those (usually of the libertarian faith) who pretend that free markets are a valid substitute for moral behavior by people.

Without moral behavior, free markets are impossible.

9 posted on 10/01/2002 7:14:00 PM PDT by r9etb
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To: Maceman
I would like to put in a good word for Josiah Priestly, who invented that indispensble adjunct for the pencil.

The eraser.

10 posted on 10/01/2002 7:20:37 PM PDT by LibKill
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To: Maceman
And let me add my

Faber Castell, a 5th Grade #2, Gets Educated
I was long and I was yellow and I could really write
I was the ultimate in technical perfection.
I had a rubberoid eraser and a core of black graphite--
I was more than pleased to be this kid’s selection.

I dreamed of stories and times I would be used to write rhymes.
I dreamed of essays and poems, I dreamed of tests.
I dreamed historical fiction, English grammar and diction
I dreamed of Exeter, Harvard, and the best.

In the end it didn’t matter for a fantasy will shatter
If it’s bent beyond the point of no return.
I was pounded, I was beaten, I was everything but eaten,
I was magnified at recess till I burned.

With semi-pornographic scrawls, I soon festooned the toilet stalls,
Incipient corruption under way.
I even mimicked an erection sans tutorial detection,
Neo-natal prelibido on display.

A stubby first grade scribbler halved my life, shivered me timber
In a recess pencil fight behind the gym.
In the science center hall I stabbed a cockroach to the wall--
“Hey, man, this pencil’s SHARP!”
Yeah, I got the point.

11 posted on 10/01/2002 7:21:02 PM PDT by aruanan
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To: Eala
can you tell us why the #2 is yellow or would that spoil the ending of the book for us? :)
12 posted on 10/01/2002 7:24:23 PM PDT by InvisibleChurch
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To: Maceman
Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?

Certainly. I know. But if you bozos think I'm gonna cut you in for free, you're nuts.

13 posted on 10/01/2002 7:28:48 PM PDT by Billthedrill
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To: Maceman
Never seen it before. Kewl. Awesome.
14 posted on 10/01/2002 7:37:37 PM PDT by Lonesome in Massachussets
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To: Maceman
Sure demonstrates the devastating ripple effects in our domestic economy when we purchase pencils that were made in China!
15 posted on 10/01/2002 7:45:58 PM PDT by Willie Green
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To: Maceman
"One of the best and most accessible articles ever written about the miraculous nature of capitalism."

How about I, Penis. It could be one of the best and most accessible articles ever written about the fatuous nature of liberalism, featuring one William Jefferson Clinton. Sheez. He could even be the author.

16 posted on 10/01/2002 8:12:17 PM PDT by Fester Chugabrew
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To: InvisibleChurch
can you tell us why the #2 is yellow or would that spoil the ending of the book for us? :)

Oh, it's worse than spoiling the ending; I seem to recall that's explained about half-way, maybe 2/3, through the book. :-)

To tell the truth, I have somewhat forgotten; I read the book over 10 years ago. As I recall it's tied to marketing in the Orient 100-150 years ago: yellow is a popular color there, associated with wealth, and royalty; yellow pencils thus became known as the best pencil one could buy, and the association remains even here -- people will buy a yellow #2 more readily than any other color.

The book was fascinating; I heartily recommend it.

17 posted on 10/02/2002 7:34:49 AM PDT by Eala
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