Henry David Thoreau: Pencil Revolutionary

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Early in US history, American-made pencils were vastly inferior compared to those from Europe. It was Thoreau who discovered the secret to European pencil quality.

The first pencil made in America was by an 18th century schoolgirl from Medford, Massachusetts. It was a very poor pencil, but it was a start.

The War of 1812 caused an embargo of goods from Europe – Americans had to figure out how to manufacture pencils out of necessity. Over the years, pencils improved in quality, but they never came near to the superiority of those made in Europe through some secret, as-yet-undiscovered process.

Everyone knew that pencil lead was made using the mineral, a crystalline form of carbon that could be mined from deposits in the ground. Everyone agreed that something was added to the graphite to give it superior performance. The question was what was that special something? Many things were tired: glues, bayberry wax, spermaceti (made from sperm whale or dolphin oil), but none of these seemed to be the charm.

American pencils were still not very good pencils: the leads smeared, were greasy, and crumbled easily. They were so poor, in fact, that some stayed with their quill pens and ink. The best quality graphite was from England, and even when that became available again after the war, it was so expensive that it was difficult for American pencil manufacturers to make a profit using it.

The Thoreau Pencil Company

In the early 1820’s, John Thoreau (Henry’s father) joined his brother-in-law, Charles Dunbar, in opening a pencil factory in Concord, Massachusetts where they both lived. Dunbar had discovered graphite in New Hampshire, giving them the raw material to use for manufacturing. But the graphite was of typically poor quality, just like the stuff otherwise available in America. The American pencil still needed that secret European formula.

Henry David Thoreau had grown up in the family business, and it was he who found the answer to making the highest quality pencils. His discovery catapulted the Thoreau Pencil Company into the top of American pencil-making.

The answer was to add clay to the graphite, creating the superior lead that had been searched for during all those many years. Additionally, by adding different amounts of clay, the hardness of the pencil led could be controlled.

Though Henry Thoreau is best known as the author of Walden and Civil Disobedience, he had a many-faceted work life. He graduated from Harvard College in 1837, well-schooled in the classics, mathematics, philosophy, Latin and Greek. He taught in both public and private schools for a few years. He was an expert canoe builder. He was a land surveyor, and often signed “Civil Engineer” after his name. He also invented many improvements to the pencil-making process, including machinery to grind the plumbago (the mixture of graphite and clay) more finely.

Henry did not seek nor did he gain any profits in his invention. His path was a different one, one that “lead” him to the shores of Walden and to the woods and fields around his lifelong hometown, Concord, Massachusetts.