January 18 – Happy Birthday, Joseph Dixon

Posted on January 18, 2015

I'm sure you already know that the “lead” in a pencil isn't made of lead. Right? After all, lead is a well known poison, so it would be pretty silly to hand rods of poison out to five- and six-year-old kids!

Instead, the “lead” in pencils is made of graphite. And today's famous birthday is the fellow who pioneered the industrial uses of graphite and the manufacture of pencils!

What is graphite?

Graphite is a lot like diamonds. Graphite is grayish black, and diamonds are typically clear and colorless. Graphite is dull, and diamonds sparkle brilliantly (when they are cut). Graphite is cheap, and diamonds are pricey.

So why do I say that graphite is like diamonds? It's because they are both made almost entirely of carbon atoms.

Graphite is a natural form of carbon that has flat, hexagonal-shaped particles. Graphite powder mixed with a clay binder is used to make pencil cores that can make marks on paper or other surface. However, graphite is so soft it must be encased in something harder—like wood. Still, graphite makes a great pencil:

  • The marks can be easily erased by rubbing with several different items.
  • The marks are resistant to moisture, most chemicals, UV radiation, and aging.

Why are pencil cores called leads, even though they aren't made of lead? Apparently, people used to think that graphite was a form of lead, not of carbon!

Now...about today's birthday boy...

Joseph Dixon, born on this date in 1799, was an inventor who invented a mirror for a camera (which eventually evolved into the modern viewfinder), a double-crank steam engine, and a counterfeit-beating printing method. He began a business connected with a graphite mine, and he discovered that graphite could be used as a stove polish, as an additive in lubricants in such things as brake linings, and as a crucible in which metals could be melted.

But Dixon is best known for manufacturing the first wood-and-graphite pencil in the U.S.

Dixon introduced his graphite-encased-in-wood pencil in 1829. But it just didn't take off. People wrote with quill pens and ink, and pencils were an innovation that most people didn't feel the need for.

But then the Civil War started. Suddenly people needed writing instruments that were more portable. Less likely to spill. Something dry and clean.

...Something like a pencil!

Suddenly the demand for pencils jumped. Dixon led the way to mass production of pencils, and by 1872 the Dixon company was making 86,000 pencils a day!

Nowadays Dixon Ticonderoga (which is what Dixon's company is now called) manufactures about 1,500,000,000 pencils a year!!!!

You've probably used one of those billions of pencils Ticonderoga has manufactured. Most of the pencils the company manufactures are the No. 2 pencils used by standardized test-takers around the world. And...speaking of “around the world,” the one billion No. 2 pencils the Ticonderoga company makes in just one year, placed point-to-eraser, would circle the Earth five times!!

By the way...

...When you hear the word inventor, do you think about more famous inventors like Alexander Graham Bell (telephone), Samuel Morse (telegraph), and Robert Fulton (steam engine)? Well, those are three of the men that Dixon hung out with!

Celebrate Dixon with pencils!

  • One of my daughters used to have a pencil collection. It can be fun to slowly collect one of every sort of pencil you can find. Hint: they're not all plain yellow!

  • Another one of my daughters is a fine artist who makes drawings using just graphite pencils and paper. Work on your pencil drawing techniques. Here is a great video to get you started with creating 3-D forms. Here is an instructional video about drawing trees – but there are a million videos available about drawing a million different things!
I've seen many amazing drawings made with pencils,
but check out these cool sculptures made with pencils!

Also on this date:

Thesaurus Day

(aka A. A. Milne's birthday!)

Plan ahead:

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