Get the Lead Out
A pointed history
This is an entry in the Saturday series of Timeless & Timely called “Off the Clock,” for paying subscribers. This is where we focus on words, a quirk of history or literature, or something just plain fun.
No doubt you’ve heard the phrase “get the lead out.” It means to hurry up, as if by reducing anything that is slowing one down.
While the origin of the phrase is unknown, it is a product of the early 20th century. To me, it brings to mind the heavy shoes of the Frankenstein monster or the old-fashioned diving suit with the copper helmet attached to a long tube and the leaded shoes to keep divers on the ocean floor.
But one area where lead was long assumed to be part of the formula is the inaptly named lead pencil.
I’m a big fan of pencils. I take notes with a Staedtler Mark-2B, which produces dark marks without too much pressure. And when I travel, I use a contraption from Faber-Castell that’s a combination cover and pencil sharpener.
And pencils were on my mind this week, as Curtis Armstrong (“Booger” from Revenge of the Nerds) joined me to talk about nerds and leadership; that in turn reminded me of the pocket protectors in the film, and the pencils that were in them.
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We can trace the history of the pencil (see what I did there?) back to the discovery of graphite deposits in Cumberland, England in 1564.
Incidentally, the Lead Age in Rome led not to pencils, but to massive lead pollution between 100 B.C. and 100, due in large part to the smelting of a range of metallic ores, including those mined for copper and gold, tin, zinc, and silver.
Anyway, back to the point.
With the discovery of graphite, manufacturers initially used whole sticks of it inside their pencils. But as graphite deposits were depleted, that left only graphite powder. What do to? Some enterprising French manufacturers mixed the powder with clay to improve the texture.
Fifteen years later, Scientific American returned to the topic, as the pencil manufacturing industry had grown with this clay mixture. This resulted in various grades of hardness, and the elimination of the need to wet the pencil before writing. [If you’ve ever seen an old movie of someone touching a pencil to their tongue, this is why.]
These grades of hardness correspond to the numbers we see on pencils today, with No. 2 being the most common.
If you need me, I’ll be the one over here with my 2B. Or not 2B.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.