Today, we meet another side of Henry David Thoreau.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1821, Charles Dunbar
discovered graphite in New Hampshire. In those days
they called graphite "plumbago." Dunbar set up a
pencil factory with his brother-in-law, John
Thoreau. When that plumbago ran out, they went to
Massachusetts and then Canada. They made a good
start, considering the poverty of American
graphite. Most of it had a greasy, smeary, quality.
English graphite was the best available, but it
cost an arm and a leg.
John Thoreau's son, Henry David, was raised in the
business. He studied at Harvard through the
mid-1830's, but he also kept a hand in the
business. Pencil leads were made by filling a
groove in a piece of wood with a mixture of ground
graphite and some kind of binder. Henry David
Thoreau worked on the problem of making a better
pencil out of inferior graphite.
He solved the problem by using clay as the binder.
With clay he created a superior, smear-free pencil
whose hardness was controllable. He made the
Thoreau company into America's leading pencil
That catches us off guard. Was the great
transcendentalist, who rose above himself on the
shores of Walden Pond, a successful inventor? Was
this the same man who formulated the idea of civil
disobedience? Was this the person who so
effectively armed Gandhi and Martin Luther King?
Thoreau's clay-mixed graphite wasn't entirely
original. The Germans had used something like it a
few years earlier. It's not clear whether Thoreau
had any inkling of the German process. But what is
clear is that he transcended it. He developed a new
grinding mill. He developed all sorts of process
details. Historian Henry Petroski adds to the list
of Thoreau's inventions -- a pipe forming machine,
water wheel designs. They probably never told you
in your English class that Thoreau often signed the
words "Civil Engineer" after his name.
Yet Thoreau was content to walk away from an
invention without making personal profit of it. He
was, after all, the same man who wrote
... the seventh day should be man's day of toil
... and the other six his Sabbath of the affections
and the soul -- in which to range this widespread
garden, and drink in the soft influences and
sublime revelations of Nature ...
Henry David Thoreau is sometimes painted as
ineffective in the real world. He certainly did
separate himself from the mad ambitions of
mid-nineteenth century America.
But his legacy to us was shaped by an engineer's
intimacy with firm-rooted reality. He knew the
shores of Walden Pond were solid earth, as much as
they were a flight of the mind.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Petroski, H., H.D. Thoreau, Engineer. American
Heritage of Invention and Technology, Vol. 5,
No. 2, pp. 8-16.
For more on Thoreau, see: http://www.library.ucsb.edu/thoreau
19th century American pencils from A. W. Faber's
Price-list of Ö, 1897
Images courtesy of the Art and
Architecture Library, University of
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
From the August, 1895, Century
Henry David Thoreau
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