Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Sociology of Pencil Sharpeners

What is the best way to trim the core of a pencil so that we may be assured of the sharpest image of our intentions on paper? Pencil cores were made of lead, but even that has evolved over the years, due to the dangers of lead. Most pencils are made of graphite now, but the age old question of what to do to trim the middle of the instrument when it becomes too dull to function precisely remains. One thing is certain, it is not pleasant to write with an overly big point in your pencil. Not only does the finished product (i.e. paper) look less professional, but it can become smudged and actually dirty and unkempt. The desire for the sharpest detail has long since been the demand for these reasons. That brings us back to our original question: What is the most effective way to keep a sharp point on a pencil? It is constantly dulling with every mark made, so it is incumbent to have some type of sharpener available if any work at all is to be finished.

The earliest writing was called cuneiform It consisted of making specific marks in wet clay; these pictures were made using a reed implement. Reeds and sticks were used in sand, as well as writing with a person’s own finger. Knives, mostly makeshift, homemade knives, were the first tools used to produce a steady point on them.

History of Pencil Sharpener

Historians believe the pencil was invented in the 15th or 16th century. Whittling the wood away with a knife was widely used in the early years to bring the lead to a fine(like me) point. However, it took far too much time, and was very hard to match all sides of the pencil. It was evident, as pencils became used more and more, that a sharpener was needed to be more efficient. A mathematician from Paris, France, patented the first actual pencil sharpener. It was made of two small metal files encased in a block of wood. The files were held securely at ninety-degree angles to grind, or scrape, both the wood and the core of the pencil. This certainly proved to be less dangerous and saved many fingers; however, it was still a tedious task and still took time. Evidently people were so satisfied with the new instrument that little change was implemented until a full ten years had passed. Then, the next pencil sharpener was described in much the same way as the first, “ two sharp files neatly and firmly set together in right angles in a small block of rosewood.” Keep in mind they were hand-held appliances, that were portable and compact. Shavings could be housed inside the block of wood for neat removal, or could actually be peeled directly off into a trash receptacle for easy disposal. The size of the well inside for the waste was indeed limited, and was the greatest problem of these initial sharpeners. They wouldn’t hold enough; plus, still they took both hands to use. The results didn’t last long enough to warrant all the work involved. How can a sharpener of something as narrow as a pencil point be held in place and be made more convenient for the writer or mathematician? There must be a simpler way to get the job done.
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It would be the early 1900’s before the next breakthrough came. The writer would insert the pencil tip into a cylinder designed with two disks which revolved around their axis with one hand, while turning the handle with his other hand. A firm push gave a clean cut with the blades. This manual pencil sharpener had a vast space for pencil shavings and could be used many times daily, and emptied weekly in a typical schoolroom of twenty students. This was a delight for teachers. They became available and popular for home use at this time.

In 1910, the pencil sharpener was brought up to date again by using electricity. Nothing could be easier than plugging the machine into an electrical outlet and pressing the pencil slightly into the provided opening. The motorized cutters grind the core into finer shavings than the older more original knives were able to provide. These models provided huge areas for the leftover trash. They were sleek, like the times! Today, it seems we have come full circle; we are back to a slimline look, compact and portable. It is convenient to use battery-operated sharpeners, which only need the application of slight, steady pressure. They are lightweight and come in many fashionable colors, as does everything these days. 

A writer needs a point on his pencil as sharp as the point he’s trying to make in the article he’s writing! The mathematician, likewise, needs a point as precise as the decimal point in his work. One might say that the more prolific the artist is, the more necessary it becomes for him to STAY SHARP!

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