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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Please tell me you get the point

By Dick Hirsch

These days pencils get very little respect, reflected in the news that some offices don’t even buy them to supply to the staff. Yet soon after I was hired for my first full time job as a newspaper reporter, I learned the value of a pencil.

That may sound surprising, but it is true. Yes, like you, I started working with a pencil in first grade. I even remember my first pencil box, a supposedly useful little contrivance for use in the primary grades. In a pencil box, a diligent pupil could carry regular pencils as well as colored pencils and perhaps a six-inch ruler and an eraser. Pencil boxes were considered essential equipment by the little kids, but by the time they reached sixth grade most students wouldn’t want to be seen carrying one.

Throughout my school years, I never recognized the value of a pencil even though I used one every day. I used a fountain pen, too, especially for penmanship exercises or for writing compositions. Although the ball point pen long ago achieved universal acceptance, it has never attained the status of the fountain pen or the utilitarian recognition of the pencil.

Finished with school, I embarked on my career. New at the paper, I found that the instruments of choice were a folded sheaf of blank newsprint and a pencil with soft black lead. Those were the tools of the trade. I don’t remember anyone using a ball-point.

There was a pencil sharpener over near the water fountain and when a pencil is sharpened, as you may recall, it not only becomes sharper, it becomes shorter. That’s an important part of the story. When my first pencil was reduced to a category classifying it as a stub, I decided I needed a replacement. Since the paper furnished the pencils, I asked one of the editorial clerks for a new one and was told that Mr. Duffy, as part of his role as the city editor, was in charge of the safeguarding and the distribution of pencils.

I immediately approached his desk in a respectful manner and made my request. He still didn’t know me very well but he eyed me as if I had just asked to borrow twenty bucks until the end of the week. Then he made a request that I remember so clearly I can quote it here with absolute accuracy.

“What’s the matter with the one you have?” he said. “Let me see it.”

My palm was sweaty and my fingers trembling slightly as I pulled it our of my shirt pocket. It was less than four inches long. I held it in my hand and he appraised it. He seemed irritated.

“Nothing wrong with that,” he said, in a dismissive tone. “That’s a good size. Check with me next week.”

I skulked back to my desk, embarrassed and disappointed, but suddenly fully aware of the inherent value of pencils, a common object the value of which far surpasses the cost. It is an awareness that has endured over the years.

The most recognized and admired pencil for general use was always the Ticonderoga No. 2, with its traditional yellow color topped with a very useful eraser. The eraser has always been a very important consideration for me, and it’s interesting to note that the pencils supplied by Mr. Duffy did not have erasers. If that was supposed to be an indication the users seldom made mistakes, it was an assumption that proved to be inaccurate.

The invention in 1858 of a pencil combined with an eraser was a significant advancement, allowing the inventor to achieve a modest degree of both fame and fortune. His name was Hymen Lipman and his concept was unique, so unique that it never became popular. He received US Patent 19873 for a pencil that contained graphite at the writing end and a rubber eraser inserted within the wooden pencil at the other end. Lipman’s idea was to enable the user to sharpen the eraser to a point, thus facilitating the erasure of fine lines and small characters. Sounds like a pretty good idea, doesn’t it? It never caught on but Lipman sold the patent rights for a reported $100,000, which was real money in those days.

The office superstores all carry pencils, of course, but the selection is narrow compared with the abundance of choices of other writing instruments. I reject all the others when it comes to working on crossword puzzles, where, in my case, the ability to erase is essential.


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