Consider the Pencil…

We spend a lot of time talking about pencil-and-paper puzzles here on the blog, but it’s rare for us to focus on the “pencil” part of that pairing.

Whether you prefer a regular pencil or a mechanical pencil for your puzzling, there’s no denying that having an eraser is a pretty comforting feature. (Although there is a certain confidence exuded by solving in pen.)

But how much do you actually know about everything that goes into making that classic solving tool?

Well, The New York Times has you covered. They recently posted an in-depth look behind the scenes of the production process at the General Pencil Company, and the photographs alone, like the one featured above, are fascinating.

From the article:

Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce. Since 1889, the General Pencil Company has been converting huge quantities of raw materials (wax, paint, cedar planks, graphite) into products you can find, neatly boxed and labeled, in art and office-supply stores across the nation: watercolor pencils, editing pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel chalks. Even as other factories have chased higher profit margins overseas, General Pencil has stayed put, cranking out thousands upon thousands of writing instruments in the middle of Jersey City.

The vivid, full-color photos in the gallery are accompanied by thoughtful musings on the writing process itself, making the article a quick, thoughtful read that’s worth your time.

Here’s one more snippet that stuck with me:

In an era of infinite screens, the humble pencil feels revolutionarily direct: It does exactly what it does, when it does it, right in front of you. Pencils eschew digital jujitsu. They are pure analog, absolute presence. They help to rescue us from oblivion… When you hold a pencil, your quietest little hand-dances are mapped exactly, from the loops and slashes to the final dot at the very end of a sentence.

That excerpt about simplicity reminds me of a classic exchange from The West Wing:

Leo McGarry: We spent millions of dollars developing a pen for the astronauts that would work in zero gravity. Know what the Russians did?
Toby Ziegler: Used a pencil?
Leo McGarry: They used a pencil.

And although that story about millions spent on a space pen has been thoroughly debunked, the point remains.

Pencils get the job done.


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