[Rushtalk] I, Pencil My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read

Carl Spitzer Winblows at lavabit.com
Sat Jan 5 19:42:59 MST 2013

I, Pencil My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read 

RP.1 I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys
and girls and adults who can read and write.* 

RP.2 Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that's all I do. 

RP.3 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

RP.4 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. 

RP.5 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. 

RP.6 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 

RP.7 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. 

RP.8 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! 

RP.9 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. 

RP.10 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 & Electric Company
hydroplant which supplies the mill's power! 

RP.11 Don't overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand
in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the nation. 

RP.12 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. 

RP.13 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

RP.14 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 fats. 

RP.15 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 involve the
skills of more persons than one can enumerate! 

RP.16 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 black? 

RP.17 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 explain. 

RP.18 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 

RP.19 Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single
person on the face of this earth knows how to make me? 

RP.20 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. 

RP.21 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
exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants.
I may or may not be among these items. 

No Master Mind 

RP.22 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. 

RP.23 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! 

RP.24 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. 

RP.25 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, yes, 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
masterminding—then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient
for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this

RP.26 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-minding." 

Testimony Galore 

RP.27 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! 

RP.28 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. Although a few of the
        manufacturing details and place names have changed over the past
        forty years, the principles are unchanged.  

        * My official name is "Mongol 482." My many ingredients are
        assembled, fabricated, and finished by Eberhard Faber Pencil
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