H. D. Thoreau, Engineer
In 1847 a citizen of Concord, Massachusetts, who had been in Harvard’s class of 1837, responded to a letter from his class secretary, asking about life ten years after college, by writing, with little regard for conventional punctuation: “I dont know whether mine is a profession, or a trade, or what not. … It is not one but legion. I will give you some of the monster’s heads. I am a Schoolmaster—a private Tutor, a Surveyor—a Gardener, a Farmer—a Painter. I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster. … For the last two or three years I have lived in Concord woods alone, something more than a mile from any neighbor, in a house built entirely by myself ”
Later in life this alumnus would also identify himself as a civil engineer. And while he would have had little inclination to join a professional society, his story is as relevant for an understanding of nineteenth-century engineering as it is for an appreciation of American transcendentalism. This Harvard alumnus was Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau’s story, especially that of his involvement in the manufacture of pencils, actually has much in common with that of many nineteenth-century engineers. First, many an engineer before mid-century, like Thoreau, would not have been certain that his activity was a profession, for one did not have to study engineering to practice it. College education prepared one for the ministry, law, medicine, or teaching; those who practiced and advanced engineering came to it largely through the crafts and the apprentice system. Second, as in the case of Thoreau, innovative and creative engineering was done by those who were interested in a wide variety of subjects beyond the technical. Influential early-nineteenth-century engineers could be a literate lot, mixing freely with the most prominent contemporary writers, artists, scientists, and politicians. And this interaction hardened rather than softened their ability to solve tough engineering problems. Third, like Thoreau, innovative engineers tended to be iconoclastic and rebellious, rejecting traditions and rules. Not a few came from professional families that didn’t understand why a young man would want to practice engineering. Those who succeeded as engineers stood out precisely because they could challenge the craft tradition for its own improvement. Fourth, like Thoreau, most engineers practiced their trade without codifying it. There was little written by or about engineers before the middle decades of the nineteenth century, so there was little left for posterity telling the technical story of how and why certain designs or processes emerged. The theories of the pioneer engineers were tested by the erection of a solid bridge or the production of a good pencil. Major contributions to technology could be incontrovertibly demonstrated without a single word’s being spoken outside the workshop or committed to paper.
The story of Henry David Thoreau’s involvement with pencil engineering begins in 1821, when his uncle, Charles Dunbar, discovered a deposit of graphite while wandering around New England. He apparently just stumbled on the essential ingredient for pencils, in Bristol, New Hampshire, and so decided to go into pencil manufacturing. Dunbar found a partner in Cyrus Stow, of Concord, and the firm of Dunbar & Stow was established to work the mine and manufacture pencils. Their graphite was certified to be far the best found in the United States, but legal complications left the partners with only a seven-year lease on the mine, so they were advised to dig out all they could of its plumbago, as graphite was commonly called.
A faster production of plumbago meant that pencils should be manufactured at a faster rate, and this, it appears, was why Charles Dunbar asked his brother-in-law, Thoreau’s father, John, to join the business in 1824. Soon both Stow and Dunbar, for various reasons, dropped out, and the firm was renamed John Thoreau & Company. By 1824 Thoreau’s pencils were of good enough quality to bring special notice at an exhibition of the Massachusetts Agricultural Society. As reported in the New England Farmer , “the Lead Pencils exhibited by J. Thorough & Co. were superieur to any specimens exhibited in past years.”
By the early 1830s Thoreau pencils were finding a steady market, but one could not make pencils without graphite, and when it could no longer be obtained from the Bristol mine, other sources had to be found. These were located in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, and later, when that supply was exhausted, in Canada. It is very likely that by the time he went away to college, the young Henry Thoreau had become familiar with and helped with the manufacture of pencils, which by then had been the family business for about ten years. Indeed, in 1834 Henry David Thoreau made a trip with his father to New York City to sell pencils to stores there, apparently because the money was needed for his schooling.
One of the reasons Thoreau pencils could compete successfully was that all the pencils made in America at the time were “greasy, gritty, brittle, inefficient,” according to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son, Edward, who was a friend of the young Thoreau. Their users, especially artists and engineers, were always looking for a better product. The inferiority of American pencils was due in large part to the fact that pure English graphite—the world’s best—was not readily available, and knowledge of a new European process for making pencils had apparently not yet reached these shores. The French inventor Nicolas-Jacques Conté had discovered in the mid-179Os that clay mixed with graphite and then baked into a ceramic rod made far better pencil leads than graphite alone or combined with other substances; this innovation is the basis of all modern pencil making. Firms like John Thoeau’s continued to mix their inadequately purified and ground graphite with such substances as glue, bayberry wax, and spermaceti, a waxy solid obtained from the oil of the sperm whale. The warmed mixture was pressed into a paste and poured or applied with a brush to the grooved part of a cedar case, and another piece of cedar was glued on top. John Thoreau worked at improving his product and achieved some success in making it better than those of his competitors. His pencils did not come anywhere near the quality of English or French pencils, but it was possible for Thoreau & Company to be well established by the mid1830s.
When Henry David Thoreau graduated from college, he had no intention of making pencils for a living. Following in the tradition of his grandfather and father, his aunt, and his brother and sister, all of whom had taught, he accepted an offer to teach at his own childhood institution, the Center School, in Concord. However, after two weeks he was called to task for not using corporal punishment. Thoreau responded by caning his students for no apparent reason and that evening resigned from his position.
Without a job, he went to work for his father. True to his nature, the young man did not want to be just another pencil maker, and so he sought to understand why American pencils were so far inferior to ones made in Europe. Since he knew that the graphite was of excellent quality, though apparently not pure enough or occurring in large enough pieces to be used without being ground and mixed with binding substances, Thoreau deduced that the problem must have lain with the filler or in the lead-making process itself.
To identify and correct whatever prevents a product from being better is the essence of engineering research and development, and whether or not he or anyone else called it that, that is exactly what Thoreau proceeded to engage in. Since the problem of identifying what was missing from the pencilmaking process was so openended, Thoreau wondered if he could determine what was in good European pencil lead or what the European pencil manufacturers did differently.
It has been written that German pencils made by the Faber family were the models that Thoreau was trying to emulate in the mid-1830s, but there is some question whether many German pencils themselves were then being manufactured by the Conté process, which made possible “polygrade” pencils whose hardness or softness depended upon the proportions of clay and graphite in the mixture. Though clay may have been used in German pencil leads as early as the 1820s, it was not used for export, and at any rate no German pencils were common in America when young Thoreau first sought to improve his father’s product. Henry Thoreau may have been hoping to emulate a French pencil or perhaps to find out how the Germans made a less gritty pencil without clay.
Not being inclined to chemistry, Thoreau could not easily analyze a specimen of pencil lead, so he evidently proceeded to look for clues in the Harvard library. The oft-repeaed story is that he read in a Scottish encyclopedia that German manufacturers combined ground graphite with Bavarian clay and baked the mixture. But since German pencils were not generally made with clay until the late 1830s, that story is highly unlikely, and in fact, none of the encyclopedias he might have consulted could have called such a process German. Even more surprising, none referred to the French pencil-making process.
Somehow Thoreau did come up with the idea of combining clay and graphite to make an excellent pencil. If he did not read it explicitly, he may have found something in the Harvard library that made him put two and two together. For example, if he had looked up “black lead,” another name for graphite, in the Scottish Encyclopaedia Perthensis, he would have come to read this about pencils: “A coarser kind are made by working up the powder of black lead with sulfur, or some mucilaginous substance; but these answer only for carpenters, or some very coarse drawings. One part of plumbago with 3 of clay, and some cows hair, makes an excellent coating for retorts, as it keeps its form even after the retorts have melted. The famous crucibles of Ypsen are formed of plumbago mixed with clay.”
Even if this encyclopedia entry did not tell Thoreau or anyone else exactly how to make a Conté pencil, it might have provided a catalyst to thought. By juxtaposing the disadvantages of sulfur as an additive with the advantages of clay as a heat-resisting ingredient, albeit for retorts, it might have provided the climate for a leap of invention—or reinvention. Whatever his inspiration, Thoreau obtained some clay and proceeded to work with it. While he could immediately produce a harder and blacker pencil lead, it was still gritty, and he suspected that this fault could be corrected by grinding the graphite finer.
It is unclear exactly how much Thoreau and his father interacted in developing a new grinding mill for graphite, which was the next step, but Henry Thoreau apparently worked out all the mechanical details, such as how fine to grind the graphite and how to remove the impurities that made pencil leads scratch. According to Edward Emerson, the solution consisted in designing a “narrow churn-like chamber around the mill-stones prolonged some seven feet high, opening into a broad, close, flat box, a sort of shelf. Only lead-dust that was fine enough to rise to that height, carried by an upward draught of air, and lodge in the box was used, and the rest ground over.” Walter Harding, a biographer of Thoreau, describes the action: “The machine spun around inside a box set on a table and could be wound up to run itself so it could easily be operated by his sisters.”
The demand for the quality pencils that the Thoreaus produced with refined graphite enabled them to expand the business, and they restricted access to the premises because they did not want to spend money patenting their machines or reveal their process. But apparently Henry Thoreau’s personality was such that as soon as he had succeeded in making the best pencil in America, he found no challenge or satisfaction in the routine of doing so. He wanted instead to go back to teaching.
Just about the time he joined his father’s pencil business, Thoreau had also begun his journal, whose two million words were to constitute his major written work. In Thoreau’s time the journal, while a seemingly private form of writing, was actually a common means of communication among the transcendentalists. They would exchange journal passages to supplement their more spontaneous forms of intercourse. Thoreau’s first journal entry is dated “Oct 22nd 1837,” but over the following decade, during which time he was engaged on and off in the business, he would mention pencil making rarely and then only in passing.
Thoreau grew restless, failed to find a teaching job, and made plans to travel. He set out for Maine in 1838, but later in the year he was back in Concord, running a private school with his brother John. The brothers took their excursion on the Concord and Merrimack rivers in 1839; in 1841 John’s health forced the two to close their school, and shortly thereafter Henry moved into the Emerson household, where he would stay for two years, conversing with Ralph Waldo Emerson, doing odd jobs around the house, and entertaining the Emerson children. As Edward Emerson later recalled, “he would make our pencils and knives disappear, and redeem them presently from our ears and noses.” When Thoreau’s father needed help in the pencil factory, Henry would go home for a time, and he would also put in a few days at the shop when he had to earn a few dollars. The younger John Thoreau died early in 1842, and Henry eventually published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers as a memorial tribute. Its dedicatory quatrain ends, “Be thou my Muse, my Brother—.”
Henry David Thoreau spent about eight months in 1843 tutoring on Staten Island, in New York, writing home often to report on his reading in libraries and to inquire after “improvements in the pencil line.” The family business was out of sight but not out of mind, and he may have been thinking of improvements of his own. He returned homesick to Concord late in the year; soon he was in debt and so went back to work in the family factory with renewed vigor and inventiveness. He apparently conceived of many ways to improve still further the processes and products of the factory and, according to Emerson, could think of nothing else for a while (but still maintained an engineer’s characteristic literary silence about things technical).
Thoreau is reported to have developed many new approaches to fitting the lead into the wood casing, including a reputed method employing a machine to drill holes into solid pieces of wood into which solid, round leads could be inserted. In the Concord Free Public Library there is a pen nib holder that Thoreau is believed to have made out of a round piece of wood but that appears in fact to be a pencil case rejected for that use because the hole in it was too eccentric. While it might not be easy or efficient to insert and glue a brittle pencil lead into a close-fitting hole—the idea has even been the object of ridicule—one of the rare passages mentioning pencils in Thoreau’s journal suggests that a seamless pencil case is at least a dream he might have had. In describing his 1846 travels through Maine, after commenting with disdain on a shop full of frivolous toys, he continues: “I observed here pencils which are made in a bungling way by grooving a round piece of cedar then putting in the lead and filling up the cavity with a strip of wood.” While this differed from the familiar way of making pencils, it was similar to one that Conté used. Nevertheless, the passage does indicate that Thoreau thought about the proper way of making a pencil, and a round pencil lead should certainly be the preferred shape for sharpening to a point. Conté’s factory apparently produced some round leads, but whether it was ever more than a dream of Thoreau’s is not clear.
There was plenty of reason for Thoreau to believe that he knew what constituted good pencil making. Not only had he developed a fine pencil, but he had also found that by varying the amount of clay in the mixture he could produce pencils of different hardness and blackness, just as Conté had discovered. The more clay a pencil lead contained, the harder would be the point; the fact that Thoreau did not realize this immediately is further evidence that he had not read about the Conté process explicitly. By 1844 Thoreau pencils were apparently as good as any to be had, whether of domestic or foreign manufacture, and Ralph Waldo Emerson thought enough of them to send some to his friend Caroline Sturgis, in Boston. An exchange of letters in that year tells the tale:
Concord, Sunday Eve, May 19
[I] only write now to send you four pencils with different marks which I am very desirous that you should try as drawing pencils & find to be good. Henry Thoreau has made, as he thinks, great improvements in the manufacture and believes he makes as good a pencil as the good English drawing pencil. You must tell me whether they be or not. They are for sale at Miss Peabody’s, as I believe, for 75 cents for the dozen. …
The pencils are excellent,—worthy of Concord art & artists and indeed one of the best productions I ever saw from there—something substantial & useful about it. I shall certainly recommend them to all my friends who use such implements & hope to destroy great numbers of them myself —Is there one softer than S [soft]—a S.S. [soft soft] as well as H.H. [hard hard]? I have immediately put mine to use. …
While there appears to be some discrepancy about exactly how much Thoreau pencils cost, with some reports that a single pencil cost as much as twenty-five cents, there seems to be little doubt that they were more expensive than other brands, some of which sold for about fifty cents a dozen. Over the years the Thoreaus made a variety of kinds of pencils, as surviving labels and broadsides document, and thus no doubt sold them at a variety of prices. Today, of course, any artifacts associated with Henry David Thoreau are prized possessions, and even as long ago as 1965 a dozen pencils offered by a Boston bookstore sold for a hundred dollars to a collector.
The variety of Thoreau pencils is confirmed by the fact that some were graduated from 1 to 4, which was the system adopted by Conté, while the ones Emerson sent his friend were graduated in terms of the letters S for “soft” and H for “hard.” Such dual systems of grading continue to be used, with some modification, to this day, with the numeric system now usually designating common writing pencils and the alphabetic one, drawing and drafting pencils.
Thoreau pencils also appear to have been packaged in a bewildering number of ways, another practice that persists, presumably to make the buyer feel there is a pencil for every need. As the Thoreaus introduced a greater variety of pencils and improvements in their process from the late 1830s through the mid-1840s, it was no doubt desirable, if not necessary, for them to distinguish the newer and improved pencils from the older and obsolete ones, but evidently they felt no need to chronicle their changes, so it is difficult, if not impossible, to put them all in sure chronological order.
There is little doubt that before Henry David Thoreau was the literary celebrity he came to be, the best pencils he and his father made were already without peer in this country. But the Thoreaus, like other pencil manufacturers, did not expect their word alone to sell pencils. Shortly after the Emerson-Sturgis correspondence the family business was able to issue a circular, which included a testimonial from Emerson’s brother-in-law, Charles Jackson:
Boston. … June, 1844.
Dear Sir:—I have used a number of different kinds of Blacklead Pencils made by you, and find them to be of excellent quality. I would especially recommend to Engineers your fine hard pencils as capable of giving a very fine line, the points being remarkably even and firm, which is due to the peculiar manner in which the leads are prepared. The softer kinds I find to be of good quality, and much better than any American Pencils I have used.
Respectfully, Your Obedient Servant, C. T. JACKSON .
Boston, June, 1844.
Sir:—Having made a trial of your pencils, I do not hesitate to pronounce them superior in every respect to any American Pencils I have yet met with, and equal to those of Rhodes, or Beekman & Langdon, London.
Respectfully yours, D. C. JOHNSTON .
“ J. THOREAU & CO. also manufacture the various other kinds of BLACK-LEAD PENCILS ; the Mammoth or Large Round, the Rulers or Flat, and the Common of every quality and price; also, Leadpoints in any quantity, and plumbago plates for Galvanic Batteries. All orders addressed to them will be promptly attended to.”
In the late summer of 1844 Thoreau’s mother felt the family business had earned them a house of their own, and Henry put more hours into pencil making to help earn the capital. Contrary to the conventional wisdom then and still current around Concord and elsewhere, Henry David Thoreau was no slouch, even though in May 1845 he left home and the pencil business and began to build his cabin near Walden Pond, where he would live until 1847. Among the many activities he engaged in at Walden was a form of chemical engineering known as bread making, and among his innovations was the inclusion of raisins in some of his dough. This reputed invention of raisin bread is said to have shocked the housewives of Concord. But while he may not have won any ribbons for his baking, in Thoreau’s absence from the family pencil business, the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association awarded a diploma to “John Thoreau & Son for lead pencils exhibited by them at the exhibition and fair of 1847.” In 1849 the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association awarded a silver medal to “J. Thoreau & Co. for the best lead pencils” at that year’s exhibition.
There is no mention of pencil making in Walden , but there is plenty of economics and sound thinking about business, qualities not alien to good engineering. Thoreau’s famous accounting of the cost of the materials for his cabin ($28.12½) and the profit he made from his “farm” ($8.71½) attests to his understanding of and fondness for business as well as engineering. As he wrote in Walden , “I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to every man.” Yet at the same time he recognized the absurdity of the economic system: “The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself. To get his shoestrings he speculates in herds of cattle.”
The Thoreaus had successfully speculated in pencils to get their shoelaces, and when Henry David went into debt in 1849 to publish his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers , he manufactured a thousand dollars’ worth of pencils to sell in New York. However, the market was becoming flooded, especially with pencils from Germany, whose manufacturers had by then mastered the Conté process, and Thoreau had to take a loss on his speculation, selling the lot for only one hundred dollars. While his book got favorable reviews, it did not sell, and he hauled hundreds of copies of it into his attic study.
While Thoreau was trying to sell his book, the pencil business was beginning to receive large orders not for pencils but for ground plumbago. The Boston printing firm of Smith & McDougal was secretive about why it wanted such quantities of the material, and the Thoreaus suspected that the firm might be entering the pencil business itself. But after swearing the Thoreaus to secrecy, the head of the firm explained that high-quality graphite was ideal for the recently invented process of electrotyping, and the company wished to keep its competitive advantage. Selling the fine graphite powder was extremely lucrative, and the Thoreaus continued to manufacture pencils only as a front. Eventually, in 1853, they gave up the pencil business altogether, and Thoreau is said to have put off his friends, who asked why he was not continuing to make his excellent pencils, with the response, “Why should I? I would not do again what I have done once.”
Although pencil making was abandoned, “John Thoreau, Pencil Maker,” advertised his new product as “Plumbago, prepared Expressly for Electrotyping,” and the black-lead business continued to do well. When his father died in 1859, Henry took over the business, his conscientiousness indicated by his getting himself a copy of Businessman’s Assistant . Meanwhile, the American pencil market was over run by German manufactures.
All the while he was dealing in fine plumbago, Henry Thoreau was also writing, publishing, and lecturing about slavery and other matters. But he always maintained a sense of the machine, even in his philosophizing. When he reflected on writing itself in his journal, he wrote, “My pen is a lever which in proportion as the near end stirs me further within —the further end reaches to a greater depth in the reader.” While Archimedes felt that, given a place on which to stand, he could move the earth with a mechanical lever, Thoreau apparently believed that, given a place to sit and think, he could move the soul with his metaphorical lever.
Another of Thoreau’s professions was surveying, and his first survey was of Walden Pond. He wrote in Walden : “I surveyed it carefully, before the ice broke up, early in ’46, with compass and chain and sounding line. There have been many stories told about the bottom, or rather no bottom, of this pond, which certainly had no foundation for themselves. It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it.”
While his map of the pond in Walden has been considered a joke by some critics, who apparently do not wish to allow that Thoreau could seriously be both engineer and humanist, there is too much evidence to the contrary. Among the artifacts in the Concord Free Public Library is a leadless cedar pencil stub with a pin projecting from it. Such a simple instrument was a means of copying drawings in the days before the blueprint and xerography. The original outline would be carefully pricked through to another piece of paper, and then the pinpricks would be connected with a smooth line. Thoreau apparently not only copied but simplified his map of Walden Pond, not because the details he left out were unimportant but because they were unnecessary for him to make his point and because they made the survey appear too cluttered. He was as critical of his drawing as he was of his words and his pencils.
Thoreau was no Sunday surveyor; he goes on in Walden in true engineering fashion to specify how accurate his measurements are (to three or four inches in a hundred feet). But after observing that the deepest part of the pond is at the intersection of the line of greatest breadth and that of greatest length, he reverts to philosophy: “What I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics. It is the law of average. Such a rule of the two diameters not only guides us toward the sun in the system and the heart in man, but draw lines through the length and breadth of the aggregate of a man’s particular daily behaviors and waves of life into his coves and inlets, and where they intersect will be the height and depth of his character.”
Thoreau always pursued a multiplicity of careers and ideas, and he practiced surveying while he wrote throughout the 1850s. In 1852 his pond surveys were incorporated into a published map of Concord, at the bottom of which he was credited as “H. D. Thoreau, Civil Engineer,” a title he sometimes used. He even advertised his services, as follows:LAND SURVEYING
Of all kinds, according to the best methods known; the neccessary data supplied, in order that the boundaries of Farms may be accurately described in Deeds; Woods lotted off distinctly and according to a regular plan; Roads laid out, &c., &c. Distinct and accurate Plans of Farms furnished, with the buildings thereon, of any size, and with a scale of feet attached, to accompany the Farm Book, so that the land may be laid out in a winter evening.
Areas warranted accurate within almost any degree of exactness, and the Variation of the Compass given, so that the lines can be run again. Apply to
HENRY D. THOREAU .
This side of Thoreau was as integral a part of his character as any other. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau became a land surveyor naturally because of “his habit of ascertaining the measures and distances of objects which interested him, the size of trees, the depth and extent of ponds and rivers, the height of mountains, and the air-line distance of his favorite summits.” Furthermore, “He could pace sixteen rods more accurately than another man could measure them with rod and chain.”
Thoreau’s penchant for measurement and surveying is illustrated by a display at the Concord Museum: Among the artifacts from his years at Walden are a T-square, compasses, and, of course, pencils. But while Emerson knew of Thoreau’s pencil making, the fact that he made arguably the best pencil in America seems not to have been sufficient for the essayist, for near the end of the obituary he published in The Atlantic , Emerson wrote of his friend Thoreau: “I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party.”
But Thoreau accomplished much more than Emerson seemed willing to grant. Thoreau surveyed and built his own cabin on Emerson’s land, and it was Emerson’s pride that Thoreau fed with excellent domestic pencils. There are many kinds of engineering; some nineteenth-century civil engineers planned and built canals and railroads and towns and then found themselves too exhausted each night to write or dream of almost anything. But that is not to say that individually they were any less sensitive to nature or philosophy than Thoreau was to pencil-making machinery. Without the services and products of all those engineers and Thoreaus, fickle and ephemeral and individual though they may have been, our essayists and poets and artists and even engineers themselves might have no shelter in which to work and no pencils with which to write and draw.