I’ve just finished Henry Petroski‘s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. While the standard wooden pencil is indeed a marvel of economical mass production, and you know I’m all about the pencils, I found the book to be pretty slow going. Petroski’s To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design is much more fun, if perhaps due to its wider scope.
While packed with more pencil lore than you could ever hope to learn in a lifetime (like the Henry David Thoreau connection to modern pencil manufacture), some of Petroski’s observations didn’t quite ring true. The books is written from a very American perspective, and when he claimed that the whole world is using a yellow-painted No. 2 eraser tipped pencil, I felt that there was something wrong with his usually objective prose.
To me, a good pencil is red or blue, or occasionally dark green or plain wood. A yellow pencil is a scratchy and petulant thing, consigned forever to the grubby bilges of a school pencil case. Petroski repeats the anecdote of how a manufacturer produced a batch of pencils, and painted half yellow and half green. Consumers complained that the green-painted pencils didn’t write well, and broke frequently. Curiously, I remember reading the same anecdote in the UK, except the batch was one quarter each red, blue, green and yellow. It was the green and yellow pencils that broke in Britain.
And a rubber (eraser) on the end? It destroys the balance of the pencil, and at best produces a nasty smear on the page. Rubbing-out is what your Helix Colonel is for!