Tuesday, August 16, 2005

We're a Proud Bunch: Who's Got the Biggest Pencil?


Those of us in the pencil industry are all quite proud of the origins and traditions of our companies. Many of us like to tell our historical tale of product innovation and organizational development. A number of us even claim to have produced the world’s “___est” pencil. Pick your adjective.

But where does one go for a good insight into the overall industry history?Henry Petroski's “The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance” is considered to be the most definitive history of the development of our industry. Many insiders however view a few facts pertaining to their own company history as not fully accurate. Some may even contest some of Petroski’s statements regarding which company first achieved various technical developments.To be sure there is plenty of interesting history in our industry.

Given the age of many of the companies even some of the factories may be considered museums or museum like. So here are a few historical references for your perusal.

Perhaps the most elaborate company historical presentation in our industry, the Cumberland Pencil Museum established by The Cumberland Pencil Company sits next door to their manufacturing facility located in Keswick, Cumbria, England. Here the Cumberland Graphite story is told beginning with the discovery and development of the famous Borrowdale graphite mines. Of course one of the museums key features is their “Worlds Longest Pencil” unveiled in 2001 at 25 feet 11-1/2 inches.

Many companies in the industry have a tale of growth characterized by merger and acquisition of other pencil manufacturers as well as of other writing instruments and art supply businesses in order to expand the product range. One of the leading examples of such development is Dixon Ticonderoga Company which a few years back published its history entitled "The Best of It's Kind". During a visit to their Versailles, MO facility some years back I saw their project to produce another world’s “___est” pencil, a giant Ticonderoga. We even supplied Dixon with super-sized Incense-cedar timbers for this effort, though I don’t have the final pencil dimensions available.

Among US pencil manufacturers just two company’s with production history pre-dating 1920 still trace current ownership to descendants of company founders. The Musgrave Pencil Company history typifies the early development and concentration of pencil manufacturers in middle Tennessee. Here much of the US industry located in order to attain supplies of Eastern Red Cedar which was the preferred pencil wood early in the 20th century. A number of US factories were originally established by immigrants from the German pencil industry culuster around Nuremburg. General Pencil Company reflects the last remaining US pencil producer with current ownership still related to the original German founder. To my knowledge neither of these companies has ever attempted to produce a Worlds “___est” pencil, though they both know how to make very good pencils.

Faber-Castell has a significant history in the pencil industry and has several entries in the competition for the Worlds “___est” pencil. A Grip 2001 measuring 12 meters is displayed at the company’s headquarters in Stein, Germany. Not to be outdone Faber-Castell’s Malaysian subsidiary has the Guinness Book of World Records certification achieved in Novemer 2002 for the World’s “Longest” Pencil at 19.75 meters.

Schwan Stabilo Group's 150 Years of History represents perhaps one of the more interesting web based company history presentations for its multidimensional timeline covering History, People, Writing Products and Cosmetic Products. And of course, you guessed it, Schwan claims to have produced the Worlds “Tallest” Pencil coming in at 30 meters for the 1906 Bavarian State Exhibition (shown above). How this one got overlooked by all the recent pretenders is a mystery, though it’s uncertain if this monster was truly capable of writing with a graphite core as the others all have. So perhaps this record needs to have an asterisk attached.

Finally, we have our own historical archives and historical display at California Cedar Products Company which provides much detail on our pencil slat history. While we do claim to be the worlds leading pencil slat manufacturer and we do make a few pencils, we have never attempted to produce our own World’s “___est” pencil. I’m guessing a little more research may be in order before ever attempting such a feat.

6 comments:

Alia said...

I think making the "-est" pencil is part of the human condition. When we don't have enough measures between Us and Them, we create our own. Tribal identity, and all that.

As a writer and artist, I'm enjoying your insights into an industry upon which I rely heavily.

John said...

I'm a little shocked at the listing for the longest pencil. I live in Shelbyville, Tenn., home to several pencil manufacturers, and around 1990 or 1991 -- as a United Way kickoff -- Empire Pencil Corp. (it may have been known as Berol by then; it's now Sanford Corp.) extruded an enormous pencil which community volunteers carried from the factory to our county courthouse. We tried to get a Guinness listing at the time, but were refused, probably because Empire had the only extrusion process at the time and there was no way for anyone else to produce that type of pencil. It was much, much longer than the size mentioned here.

The pencil carried to the square was snapped into pieces and carried home as souvenirs by the crowd, but a similar-length pencil was (while still warm and flexible) wound into a tight spiral and mounted to a large wooden plaque. Someone in the organization should still have it.

WoodChuck said...

John -
Yes the old Empire plastic extrusion process is very interesting. Having been to this facility and as a frequent visitor to Shelbyville (aka "Pencil City USA"), I can fully imagine your march to the courthouse in the town square. Of course the plant is now shut down and shuttered given relative cost performance issues of wood to plastic for casing and of the graphite-clay compounding in a wooden pencil core vs. graphite-plastic core in the extruded pencil.

I believe one thing about these other "___est" pencils is that they were all produced to the proportionate dimensions of an actual pencil. So perhaps Guinness rejected on the basis that your town long pencil would not have been to proportion.

Thanks for the post on your blog.

Irv Arons said...

Hi, just wanted to throw my "two cents" in. I'm one of the co-inventors of the Epcon plastic pencil developed for Empire Pencil Company and commercialized in 1974.

I have a picture of a 25' pencil we produced in our laboratory at Arthur D. Little that was featured in a "Where's Boston" exhibit in the mid-1970's.

I'm in the process of putting a writeup of the development of the "plastic pencil" on my web Journal. It should be up in about a week or so. The link is:

www.irvaronsjournal.blogspot.com

Irv Arons

Anonymous said...

I work in Lewisburg, TN just a few miles from Shelbyville. Here in Lewisburg, the majority of the pencils for Sanford are now produced in the old Faber facility (over 2 million pencils per day). In our facility, the old Empire Berol USA "World's Longest Pencil" resides. The pencil was extruded to a length of 1,091.75 feet. This is the pencil John is referring to as being wrapped in a spiral. Just thought you would be happy to know, it is still in safe keeping.

Irv Arons said...

Hi, Irv Arons again. I've recently added a second blog, this one devoted to products and inventions that came out of the Arthur D. Little labs.

I've included my writeup of the EPCON plastic pencil, along with some photos from some of the pencils I have in my collection.

The link is:

http:adlittlechronicles.blogspot.com

Irv Arons