The Journey of a Pencil

by unoptimal, with scrollama

(best viewed on desktop)

inspired by I, Pencil

Look at this pencil. What do you see?

Maybe some wood, lead, metal, and an eraser. Pretty simple.

Yet, curiously, I'd bet that not a single person on the planet knows how to make it.

Don't believe me? Let's dig deeper into this pencil's lineage.

It begins with a cedar tree grown in Northern California and Oregon.

Now consider the saws, trucks, and rope used to harvest and cart the cedar logs to the railroad siding.

These logs are then shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California, and cut into small, pencil-length slats.

How many skills went into the making of the kilns, the supplying the heat, the light and power, and all the other things a mill requires?

Once in the pencil factory — over $4,000,000 in machinery and building — each slat is given eight clean grooves by a complex machine.

The “lead” of a pencil itself (which contains no lead at all) is complex; the graphite is mined in Sri Lanka.

The graphite is mixed with clay from Mississippi, passed through numerous machines, cut to size, dried, and baked for several hours at 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit.

As for the innocuous labeling — that’s a film formed by applying heat to carbon black mixed with resins.

How do you make resins? And what even is carbon black?

The bit of metal at the end of a pencil is brass. Think about those who mine zinc and copper, and those with the skills to make shiny sheets of brass from these products of nature.

Then there’s the eraser.

An ingredient called “factice” is what does the erasing. Rubber, contrary to popular belief, is only for binding purposes.

Even then, rubber itself contains numerous vulcanizing and accelerating agents. The pumice comes from Italy, and the pigment which gives “the plug” its color is cadmium sulfide.

What? You don't know what any of that is? Yeah, me neither.

As you can see, this pencil is made up of a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite.

But maybe the greatest miracle displayed here is the unconscious conglomeration of creative human energies.

Somehow, millions of tiny know-hows have naturally and spontaneously come together in response to a human desire — all without any elaborate masterminding.

And if you think about it, our collective network of human knowledge is basically a superintelligence.

Isn't that amazing? I sure think so.