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The Pencil: A History of Design and…

The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (original 1990; edition 1992)

by Henry Petroski (Author)

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7621430,125 (3.6)40
Henry Petroski traces the origins of the pencil back to ancient Greece and Rome, writes factually and charmingly about its development over the centuries and around the world, and shows what the pencil can teach us about engineering and technology today.
Title:The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance
Authors:Henry Petroski (Author)
Info:Knopf (1992), Edition: 1st, 448 pages
Collections:Your library, Currently reading

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The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski (1990)


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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
This has to be the most boring book I have ever read. 400 pages on the history of the pencil. Each chapter had a paragraph or two about the pencil (and that was interesting) and then page after page of theories of engineering. I had this book checked out for 9 weeks. I just couldn't take it any longer. I made it to page 254. I'm going to consider this book READ so it wasn't an entire waste of my time! I think I made it to the early 1900's for pencil history. . . I could have skimmed it to find the rest, but I didn't. I just couldn't. ( )
  Chica3000 | Dec 11, 2020 |
I really tried to like this book. The topic sounded very interesting, and as a writer who still does write by hand, I figured it would be interesting. However, Petroski simply does not know how to write or make an engaging narrative. Every time you think he is going to get to the history of the pencil, he goes off on some generic tangent--whether it be how wonderful engineering (as a field) is, or where I finally dropped off, some stuff about storytellers. That the prose is dense and dry certainly does not help things neither. I have read a good number of microhistory books (histories of just one topic) that were pretty good. This is not one of them. Avoid this book. I am sure if you want to learn more about pencils and their history, there are better sources out there.

I just basically followed the Nancy Pearl Rule of 50 on this one. ( )
  bloodravenlib | Aug 17, 2020 |
This line gets overused, but this book really does have (just about) everything you could ever want to know about pencils. For me it began to drag after a while, but your mileage will vary; I ended up taking it a few chapters at a time while I read other things, and that worked better. ( )
  JBD1 | Jul 22, 2017 |
The author has found a lot of interesting information about pencils, but is actually really interesting in engineering in general. It shows. ( )
  MarthaJeanne | Dec 2, 2016 |
I’m quite convinced that Henry Petroski could write about the engineering or manufacturing of anything and it would an order of magnitude better than expected. He’s authored books about bookshelves, the toothpick, and engineering projects that I would have expected to be ho-hum or dryasdust, but he always surprises me. In The Pencil, he takes on the titular subject and discusses not only the history of the object, but the mindset, engineering, and technology involved in crafting such a simple tool.

The Romans started with a tool known as a penicillum, or a pencil brush, but true pencils with lead/graphite cores are not documented in history until 1565 when an illustration shows up in a book on fossils by Konrad Gesner. Before the classic yellow #2 came into existence in 1890, there were all types of pencil designs. A massive graphite deposit discovered in Seathwaite, England lead to an acceleration in pencil design. Cheap pencils were just thick shards of graphite sharpened and wrapped with string, but by the early 1600s, wood casings were the norm.

All this begs the question: how does one actually make a pencil? Most processes are essentially the same. Take a piece of wood that is the general size and shape you want your finished product to be, cut a rut into which the writing substance can be fitted, then glue a wood cap on it to seal it together. You can then trim, re-shape, and paint the pencil to your liking after that. The process has been relatively unchanged since the Renaissance. Pencil variability and personal likes and dislikes come from the type of wood used, the shape of the pencil, and the quality of the graphite core.

It could be argued that Petroski’s history of the pencil could stand a bit of trimming, but all the engineering, biographical, and historical tangents were a lot of fun for me. If you want a straight history of the pencil, then you can just read the Wikipedia article and be done with it, but for a truly immersive and fully contextual account of the pencil and its place in history, read this one. It’s a bit hefty, but if you stick with it, you’ll get a lot out of it. He makes the reader slightly more aware of the little things, and I began to wonder about the manufacture of many other tiny quotidian objects in my life. That, I think, is the mark of a good author. A very interesting read. ( )
  NielsenGW | Dec 9, 2013 |
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Henry David Thoreau seemed to think of everything when he made a list of essential supplies for a twelve-day excursion into the Maine woods.
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Henry Petroski traces the origins of the pencil back to ancient Greece and Rome, writes factually and charmingly about its development over the centuries and around the world, and shows what the pencil can teach us about engineering and technology today.

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