Despite its gloomy title, 'The Book of the Dead' topped the summer reading lists of all of Egypt's fashionable periodicals.
Pencil technology hasn’t changed very much over the millennia.
Long before paper made its way over the long silk road from China, the western world recorded information on papyrus, a paper-like material made from the eponymous Egyptian reed. The ancient Romans would use a tool called the stylus to write on papyrus. Styli were small rods, pointed at one end and blunt at the other. When inscribing in soft materials like wax, the sharp end was used to etch letters while the blunt end was used to scrape away the writing entirely. Styli were generally made of lead, a very soft metal. So when a scribe was writing on papyrus, the stylus not only scratched but left faint grey lead markings.
In other words, the stylus was to the pencil what the quill is to the modern pen.
There was very little development in pencil technology for well over a thousand years until the 16th century, when a large deposit of graphite was discovered in England. Graphite has many qualities similar to lead that make it ideal for pencil use: it’s a soft, brittle material that leaves a mark when scratched against another surface. In fact, graphite leaves a much darker mark than lead. It also helps that, unlike lead, graphite isn’t a dangerous poison. Of course they didn’t know or care about this at the time. They were eagerly putting lead in everything: water pipes, paint, makeup, dishes, toys.
One of the earliest wooden pencils
Originally people wrapped the graphite in string to make it easier to handle, but eventually someone came up with the idea of digging a groove into a stick of wood to contain the graphite, and thus the first modern pencil was born. It was in the late 1600s in Germany that the first mass-produced pencil was made. Other companies caught pencil fever and were scrambling to get a piece of the pencil pie.[i] One of these companies, Faber-Castell, established in 1761, is still a major player in the winner-take-all battle for pencil supremacy, a battle the outcome of which only time will tell.
That is until this year, the year twenty-ten, when Sharpie changed everything.
Once people figured out how to jam a brittle stick of graphite into a tiny hollowed out log, they figured they’d reached the pinnacle of pencil technology. There was little left to challenge them, so no progress was made for the next two hundred years. Frankly, they got lazy.
Some developments were made in the periphery of pencil production: pencil sharpeners were invented and later replaced by the superior electric pencil sharpener. But the design of the pencil itself remained relatively unchanged until the invention of the mechanical pencil.
The mechanical pencil sounds cooler than it is. Instead of encasing graphite in wood, pencil companies encased it in plastic and found a way to retract the lead when it isn’t being used. This eliminated the need for pencil sharpeners but created the need for those little plastic boxes of graphite refills. In spite of its snazzy new shell, the mechanical pencil still works on the same principles as the wooden, plus the wooden is still the standard in the pencil industry. Little has changed.
That’s where Sharpie comes in. Sharpie recently announced the result of what must’ve been some dark Faustian bargain, an innovation that defies the natural order and seeks to seat mankind among the gods. It is an event simultaneously celestial and diabolical, exhilarating and terrifying. I speak of none other than the liquid pencil.
The harbinger of our doom
Through undisclosed means — some mixture of science and dark alchemy — Sharpie has discovered a way to turn graphite into a strange liquid metal. The new pencil writes with liquid like a pen, but once on paper it acts like, and erases like, solid graphite. After three days, whatever has been written on the page becomes permanent.
The good news is this is probably the first genuinely exciting news to come out of the pencil industry since coloured pencils. And it’s truly revolutionary. The very core of what makes a pencil a pencil has been changed. Literally. The graphite core has been changed into a futuristic liquid metal. This also bridges the seemingly eternal gap between pen and pencil. There were erasable pens in the past, but they never really worked as they were intended. And so if one wanted something dark and permanent, they needed pens, but if they wanted to erase they needed pencils. Now we finally have a tool that is both fully erasable because it’s truly a pencil, but fully permanent because it’s truly a liquid pen. Surely this is an irrefutable indicator that we have arrived in the Future.
And thus the bad news. We all know where this is going. Liquid metal pencils utilizing strangely advanced technology. It’s only a matter of time before Sharpie is bought out by a shadowy corporation called Cyberdyne, bringing us one step closer to Judgment Day and the war against the machines. The Sharpie liquid graphite technology will eventually form the basis of the T-1000 who will be sent back in time to kill John Connor. I’m even inclined to believe that the Sharpie pencil itself was sent back in time by the machines, utilizing technology that will push the Judgment Day timeline ahead by several years.
Robert Patrick playing a Sharpie liquid pencil
So as cool and exciting as Sharpie’s new pencil is, in creating it they have doomed the human race to nuclear destruction and a post-apocalyptic robot war. Fortunately for us, there is a fundamental yearning in the human soul to kill robots, and — I would argue — it’s the only time we truly shine. So I say bring on the liquid pencils, and bring on the war with the machines.
[i] A real dish in England, by the way, and even nastier than it sounds.