I, Pencil 
                                Leonard E. Read 

   I am a lead pencil--the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and 
girls and adults who can read and write. 
   Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that's all I do. 
   You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my 
story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery --more so than a tree or a 
sunset or even a flash of lightning. But, sadly, I am taken for granted by 
those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This 
supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is 
a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist 
without peril. For, the wise G. K. Chesterton observed, "We are perishing 
for want of wonder, not for want of wonders." 
   I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a 
claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me -- no, 
that's too much to ask of anyone -- if you can become aware of the 
miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is 
so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this 
lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical 
dishwasher because -- well, because I am seemingly so simple. 
   Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to 
make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn't it? Especially when it is realized 
that there are about one and one-half billion of my kind produced in the 
U.S.A. each year. 
   Pick me up and look me over. What do you see? Not much meets the eye -- 
there's some wood, lacquer. the printed labeling, graphite lead, a bit of 
metal, and an eraser. 
   Innumerable Antecedents 
   Just as you cannot trace your family tree back very far, so is it 
impossible for me to name and explain all my antecedents. But I would like 
to suggest enough of them to impress upon you the richness and complexity of 
my background. 
   My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar of straight 
grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon. Now contemplate all the 
saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and 
carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all the persons and 
the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, 
the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors: the growing 
of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the 
logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of 
all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of 
coffee the loggers drink! 
   The logs are shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California. Can you 
imagine the individuals who make flat cars and rails and railroad engines 
and who construct and install the communication systems incidental thereto? 
These legions are among my antecedents. 
   Consider the millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are cut into small, 
pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness. These are 
kiln dried and then tinted for the same reason women put rouge on their 
faces. People prefer that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The slats are 
waxed and kiln dried again. How many skills went into the making of the tint 
and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the belts, 
motors, and all the other things a mill requires? Sweepers in the mill among 
my ancestors? Yes, and included are the men who poured the concrete for the 
dam of a Pacific Gas Elecric Company hydroplant which supplies the mill's 
   Don't overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in 
transporting sixty carloads of slats across the nation. 
   Once in the pencil factory -- $4,000,000 in machinery and building, all 
capital accumulated by thrifty and saving parents of mine -- each slat is 
given eight grooves by a complex machine, after which another machine lays 
leads in every other slat, applies glue, and places another slat atop -- a 
lead sandwich, so to speak. Seven brothers and I are mechanically carved 
from this "wood-clinched" sandwich. My "lead" itself -- it contains no lead 
at all -- is complex. The graphite is mined in Ceylon. Consider these miners 
and those who make their many tools and the makers of the paper sacks in 
which the graphite is shipped and those who make the string that ties the 
sacks and those who put them aboard ships and those who make the ships. Even 
the lighthouse keepers along the way assisted in my birth --and the harbor 
   The graphite is mixed with clay from Mississippi in which ammonium 
hydroxide is used in the refining process. Then wetting agents are added 
such as sulfonated tallow -- animal fats chemically reacted with sulfuric 
acid. After passing through numerous machines, the mixture finally appears 
as endless extrusions -- as from a sausage grinder -- cut to size, dried, 
and baked for several hours at 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit. To increase their 
strength and smoothness the leads are then treated with a hot mixture which 
includes candelilla wax from Mexico, paraffin wax, and hydrogenated natural 
   My cedar receives six coats of lacquer. Do you know all the ingredients 
of lacquer? Who would think that the growers of castor beans and the 
refiners of castor oil are a part of it? They are. Why, even the processes 
by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involves the skills of more 
persons than one can enumerate! 
   Observe the labeling. That's a film formed by applying heat to carbon 
black mixed with resins. How do you make resins and what, pray, is carbon 
   My bit of metal -- the ferrule -- is brass. Think of all the persons who 
mine zinc and copper and those who have the skills to make shiny sheet brass 
from these products of nature. Those black rings on my ferrule are black 
nickel. What is black nickel and how is it applied? The complete story of 
why the center of my ferrule has no black nickel on it would take pages to 
   Then there`s my crowning glory, inelegantly referred to in the trade as 
"the plug," the part man uses to erase the errors he makes with me. An 
ingredient called "factice" is what does the erasing. It is a rubber-like 
product made by reacting rape-seed oil from the Dutch East indies with 
sulfur chloride. Rubber, contrary to the common notion, is only for binding 
purposes. Then, too, there are numerous vulcanizing and accelerating agents. 
The pumice comes from Italy; and the pigment which gives "the plug" its 
color is cadmium sulfide. 
   No One Knows 
   Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person 
on the face of this earth knows how to make me? 
   Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one 
of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. Now, you may say that 
I go too far in relating the picker of a coffee berry in far off Brazil and 
food growers elsewhere to my creation; that this is an extreme position. I 
shall stand by my claim. There isn't a single person in all these millions, 
including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a 
tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the 
only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in 
Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be 
dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker 
in the oil field -- paraffin being a by-product of petroleum. 
   Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the 
chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the 
ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the 
knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his 
singular task because he wants me. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than 
does a child in the first grade. Indeed, there are some among this vast 
multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their 
motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of 
these millions sees that he can thus enchange his tiny knowhow for the goods 
and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items. 
   No Master Mind 
   There is a fact still more astounding: The absence of a master mind, of 
anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring 
me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the 
Invisible Hand at work. This is the mystery to which I earlier referred. 
   It has been said that "only God can make a tree." Why do we agree with 
this? Isn't it because we realize that we ourselves could not make one? 
Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot, except in superficial terms. 
We can say, for instance, that a certain molecular configuration manifests 
itself as a tree. But what mind is there among men that could even record, 
let alone direct, the constant changes in molecules that transpire in the 
life span of a tree? Such a feat is utterly unthinkable! 
   I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, 
graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in 
Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration 
of creative human energies --millions of tiny know-hows configurating 
naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in 
the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I 
insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of 
know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to 
create a tree. 
   The above is what I meant when writing, "if you can become aware of the 
miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is 
so unhappily losing" For, if one is aware that these know-hows will 
naturally, yea, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and 
productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand-that is, in 
the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding -- then one 
will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free 
people. Freedom is impossible without this faith. 
   Once government has had a monopoly of a creative activity such, for 
instance, as the delivery of the mails, most individuals will believe that 
the mails could not be efficiently delivered by men acting freely. And here 
is the reason: Each one acknowledges that he himself doesn't know how to do 
all the things incident to mail delivery. He also recognizes that no other 
individual could do it. These assumptions are correct. No individual 
possesses enough know-how to perform a nation's mail delivery any more than 
any individual possesses enough know-how to make a pencil. Now, in the 
absence of faith in free people -- in the unawareness that millions of tiny 
know-hows would naturally and miraculously form and cooperate to satisfy 
this necessity -- the individual cannot help but reach the erroneous 
conclusion that mail can be delivered only by governmental "master- 
   Testimony Galore 
   If I, Pencil, were the only item that could offer testimony on what men 
and women can accomplish when free to try, then those with little faith 
would have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore: it's all about 
us and on every hand. Mail delivery is exceedingly simple when compared, for 
instance, to the making of an automobile or a calculating machine or a grain 
combine or a milling machine or to tens of thousands of other things. 
Delivery? Why, in this area where men have been left free to try, they 
deliver the human voice around the world in less than one second: they 
deliver an event visually and in motion to any person's home when it is 
happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less 
than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one's range or furnace in 
New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy: they deliver each 
four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our Eastern Seaboard -- halfway 
around the world -- for less money than the government charges for 
delivering a one-ounce letter across the street! 
   The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies 
uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let 
society's legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these 
creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will 
respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, 
seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony 
that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar 
tree, the good earth. 


   Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) founded FEE in 1946 and served as its 
president until his death. I, Pencil, his most famous essay, was first 
published in the December 1958 issue of The Freeman.              

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