The Good Old Mechanical Pencil!

Students, artists, and engineers alike are all very familiar with the mechanical pencil. Preferred by many, the mechanical pencil is reusable, refillable, and always sharp. The little mechanical pencils that students love to fidget with are a surprisingly old invention! The idea of an “always sharp” pencil has been an attractive one for centuries and produced many variations of the much-beloved plastic pencils of today.

The first person to “invent” the mechanical pencil was the man who first invented the pencil itself. Conrad Gesner improved on the original stick of lead by devising a holder. The holder supported the lead, and the lead could be adjusted downwards and sharpened. This was not a true mechanical pencil as we would think of it today- it is not always sharp and needs to be manually adjusted. Still, Gesner’s holder was an innovation that paved the way for standard and mechanical pencils alike. Previously, people would simply hold the stick of lead.

A stick of lead with Futhark Runes etched into it.
mararie, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The next time a mechanical pencil pops up in history in is 1791. The HMS Pandora, a Porcupine class frigate of the English navy, was sunk near the Great Barrier Reef. Onboard was a mechanical pencil! This was not discovered until 1977 when the ship was finally located. This is still not quite a “mechanical pencil” as we would think of it today.

The 1800s were when the mechanical pencil began to take off. In 1822 the first patent for a mechanical pencil that had a replaceable lead and a method to push the lead forward was filed in Britain. Sampson Mordan and John Hawkins had filed the patent, but only Sampson manufactured the pencils. He called the pencils the “ever-pointed” pencils. His company, S. Mordan and Co, manufactured the pencils from 1837 until World War II.

Mordan’s patent drawings for his mechanical pencil

In 1833, James Bogardus patented a similar pencil in the United States. His “forever pointed” pencils were encased in a metal tube, but there is little evidence it went into mass-production.

Well over 150 patents were filed in the 1800’s for many variations of the mechanical pencil. 1877 had the first spring loaded system. This is the system mainly used today, with a “push button” design that moves the lead forward with the simple click of a button. John Hoffmann designed the spring loaded system and incorporated it into the Eagle Automatic company. These pencils, while very close to today’s style of pencil, had far too much “give” to the lead, making them hard to use. 1895 introduced a twist feed system which was not as popular as the push-button design.

An ad for an Eagle Pencil Company Mikado pencil
The Eagle Pencil Company made various pencils- the mechanical pencil was only a small part of what they offered!

 The event that really propelled the pencil into wide usage was the patent filed by Tokuji Hayakawa in 1915. He changed the casing to a nickel casing and improved on the feeding process of the lead. It took a few years, but a large order from a trading firm helped to popularize the “Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil.”

An interesting pen/mechanical pencil combo!

The mechanical pencil did go through several improvements since 1915. Most are now constructed mainly of plastic, and the sizes of the leads range anywhere between .2 to .9. Many include an attached eraser. However, traditional mechanical pencils used by engineers are often still made of metal and do not include the attached eraser.

Want to know more? Check out these sources!

The USS North Carolina

The USS North Carolina was among the most decorated ships during WWII. She was awarded more battle stars than any other battleship during WWII. She was one of the few ships still capable of battle after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

North Carolina and her sister ship Washington were launched on June 13th, 1940, and commissioned about a year later, on April 9th, 1941. She was the only battleship in the assault on Guadalcanal in August 1942. She was struck by a torpedo hit from the Japanese submarine I-19. The shot filled five men and injured 20, but the ship was able to stay in formation despite two flooded compartments. Overall, North Carolina participated in 9 shore bombardments and shot down 24 Japanese aircraft. It’s said that during one battle, the Battle of Eastern Soloman, the fire coming from North Carolina was so intense she appeared to be on literal fire.

I recently was able to visit North Carolina. She was placed out of commission in 1947, and finally stricken from the Navy list on June 1st in 1960. By 1961, she was dedicated as a war memorial in Wilmington North Carolina. She is a public memorial with a dedicated group that continually works to maintain and restore her. Below are some of the many photos I took. Unfortunately, some parts of the ship were under restoration when I visited, and it was rather crowded. The photos below have been edited to remove most people and improve clarity. You can click on the first photo to enlarge it, and browse the gallery. They are in no particular order.

Pep the Prison Dog

In 1924 a black Scotch retriever received terrible news: he was sentenced to life in prison. Pep, a friendly male dog said to be good-natured, was being sent to Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania for the alleged crime of killing the governors wife’s cat. He was brought to the prison, had his mugshot taken and a prisoner number issued to him, and taken to meet the other inmates.

Life behind bars, taken by John McGuire, found on Flickr.

Pep, aka Prisoner C2559, wasn’t assigned a cell, but rather slept in the cell of his choice each night. He reported every morning for rollcall and supposedly took his work assignments with no complaints. He stayed in the prison from August 31, 1924, until his death.

The truth behind the tale

Pep was absolutely a real dog who lived in the prison in 1924. However, he was never sentenced to life in prison and according to Mrs. Pinchot, the governor’s wife, had never killed any cat, let alone hers.

Pep was sent to the Eastern State Penitentiary primarily as a morale boost. In the years up to 1924, the prison had issues with security, overcrowding, and general morale. Some improvements were made, such as new watchtowers and a new communal prisoner cafeteria. However, the Governor of Pennsylvania, Gifford Pinchot, had recently heard about an odd improvement to a prison in Maine, and had decided to emulate it. He would send in a dog to improve the morale of the prisoners. The mugshot and prisoner number were a joke, as was the entry listing Pep’s crime as “murder.” The joke proved to be in poor taste, and stayed international protests.

Pep stayed at the prison for roughly (2) years before being retired to the farm branch of the prison, SCI Graterford. He remained there until his death.

Want to know more? Check out: Eastern State’s article about animals in prison

The First Horseless Carriage

While many people think of cars and automobiles as the product of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, the first horseless carriages were built before the American Revolution!

Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot was an engineer in the French Army when he successfully built one of the world’s first steam engines designed specifically for turning wheels. By 1769 he had constructed a small vehicle around the steam engine, which he called the “fardier à vapeur” or “Steam Dray” It had only three wheels. The next year he had constructed a full-sized Steam Dray for testing. This version had two wheels in the rear and one in the front, capable of steering the 2.5-tonne vehicle. There was a large boiler onboard to produce the necessary steam for the engine.

This monster of a cargo-mover was capable of a stunning 2.5mph, about the same as an easy walking pace. Unfortunately, the fire for the boiler was difficult to maintain and often went out at inconvenient times. When it had to be relit it took up to 15 minutes to generate enough steam to power the engine. It was also a rather unstable vehicle, making it unsuited to the military transport purposes it was originally designed for. The idea was interesting but ultimately shelved in favor of more practical innovations.

One unverified story states that not only was Cugnot responsible for the first “Horseless Carriage”, but also the first car accident. Supposedly while testing the Steam Dray, he had collided with a brick or stone wall, collapsing part of the wall. The truth of this story is in question, however, as there are no written accounts of the said crash.

Several replicas of the Steam Dray can be seen in various museums around France, as well as in Cugnot’s town of birth, Void-Vacon. The original can be seen in the Musée des Arts et Metiers in Paris.

The Fardier à Vapeur in the Musée des Arts et Metiers
By Joe deSousa – Joseph Cugnot’s 1770 Fardier à Vapeur, CC0,