The yellow pencil: a perfect design

Perfectly designed objects are hard to find.

But as 30 March was National Pencil Day, it seems appropriate to give credit where it’s due. It’s been 158 years since Hymen Lipman first married the eraser to the lead pencil and created one of the most perfectly-designed writing implements in existence.

Lipman, a Jamaican-born inventor from Philadelphia, submitted the patent for his “combination of lead-pencil and eraser” in 1858, the same year the world saw its first can opener, mason jar and ironing board.

He described it as particularly useful for “making mathematical, architectural, and many other kinds of drawings in which the lines are very near each other … as it may be sharpened to a point to erase any marks between the lines.”

Lipman’s design for the attached eraser was significantly smaller than erasers found on pencils in use today. Instead, it more closely resembles modern mechanical pencils, which still have tiny erasers.

Before Lipman came along, people would use separate erasers to correct their errors. (In Europe, that’s still largely the case.) And before that, they used things like moist pieces of bread.

So praise be to people like Hymen Lipman, who don’t just focus on improving life’s biggest pieces of technology, but realise the smaller annoyances can be just as important to fix.

By Chris Weller for

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